Last night, the country’s single biggest expansion of the right to vote happened since the 26thAmendment to the U.S. Constitution lowered the voting age to 18: Florida voters passed Amendment 4, a change to the Florida constitution automatically restoring voting rights to 1.4 million Americans who have completed all the terms of their criminal sentence. I always tell my students that to be a social justice worker, you have to learn how to take a loss on the chin and walk into work the next day. I usually don’t need to tell people how to handle a win. Some kvell or snark on twitter. Some drink toasts. Me? I usually burst into meetings and run down the hallways with my arms in the air like a soccer player who just scored a goooooolllll. But in the face of this transformative event, one that has been more than decades in the making, I don’t recognize myself. A congratulatory smile makes me tearful, and I seem to be walking outside of my own body. I am not the controlled technician I am in a court room. Can extreme happiness make you delirious?
As I’m trying to get myself together for my team, my colleagues, and my clients, some understanding folks are telling me to cut myself a break for being emotional. This is not just an ordinary win, this is a big win. A BIIIIGGG win. It will bring into our democracy more than a million Americans who have been shut out because of mistakes in their past. It stamps out a nakedly Jim Crow policy. It reaffirms the American commitment to being a land of second chances. And it demonstrates that when the right things come together, people from all walks of life and all political stripes can find common ground.
In trying times (and in a world where mere days ago we saw a mass shooting at a place of worship and public school teachers dressing up as a border wall, it is hard to dispute that these are trying times), I hold closely my faith that I know how all this ugliness ends: Justice wins. Love wins. The horrific and atrocious ways we humans treat each other are hurtful, shameful, and ultimately, futile attempts to evade the unavoidable triumph of good over evil. But one of the beautiful mysteries of my faith is that even though the beginning and the ending of the human portion in the story of the universe is all set, we are all being used to write the middle. Human history has a complicated trajectory.
And the Amendment 4 part of the middle of this human history, like all middles, has its own many beginning and ends. There was the 13th,14th, and 15th Amendments and Reconstruction. There was Jim Crow and racist constitutional conventions. There were ping-ponging executive orders. There was an uninterested legislature. There was a lawsuit filed in 2000 that should have won but didn’t. In more recent times, there was an email list called the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, that transformed into a vibrant and effective stand-alone organization. There were organizers and lawyers and academics and funders and faith leaders and community folks. Some contributed a piece and moved on. Some came in later with new ideas, connections, and strategies. And, some, seemingly did nothing but Amendment 4 for the better part of five years, like the indomitable Desmond Meade, and Mila, Howard, and Pastor Rhonda. And there were the hundreds of thousands of Floridians who went to the polls and used the vote that they have to restore voting rights to their neighbors and family members who didn’t.
One of Desmond’s many big visions was that the amendment should go on the ballot in 2018. I was part of the crew that thought the math worked better for us in 2020. Desmond, I have never been so glad to be wrong. The campaign portion of Amendment 4 has ended, but it gives rise to other things that can now and must begin.
We will move on to making sure it is implemented properly, its impact is protected against those who reject the principles of an inclusive democracy, and that every person enfranchised through it uses their hard-won right to vote. We also need to learn from what went really well and what could have gone better and use those lessons to get Kentucky and Iowa, the last of the two states with policies of permanent disenfranchisements for felony convictions more in line with the rest of the country (and we can add Virginia to that list if some future governor decides to go backwards).
Congrats Desmond. Congrats FRRC. Congrats to all of the friends and colleagues and partners I’ve had the privilege of working with on this campaign and to those I didn’t, but I nonetheless know were working hard on it. Congrats Florida. Congrats USA. Congrats democracy. This is a big moment in the history of the country. While I knew this day would come, and I was sure I would see it, I still can’t really believe I’m living it now.
(Image: Joe Raedle/Getty)