Contenders for the Democratic nomination for president engaged in virtual campaigning on Friday, debating the felon voting rights constitutional amendment Floridians overwhelmingly approved last year — and that state Republicans are threatening to eviscerate.
Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Protection Nikki Fried, Florida’s only Democratic statewide elected official, hosted the “Twitter Town Hall” on behalf of the Florida Democratic Party. The Florida primary election is set for March 17.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was first to chime in.
“The people voted to restore voting rights to 1.4 million of their fellow citizens who had been disenfranchised in Florida. We must keep fighting efforts to silence their voices. Thank you @NikkiFried for standing up to this injustice and fighting for Floridians,” Warren said.
“The right to vote is the most sacred American right there is — and we can protect it by restoring the Voting Rights Act, stopping foreign interference in our elections, fighting back against gerrymandering and calling for automatic voter registration,” former Vice President Joe Biden contributed.
“As governor of [Massachusetts], I recognized that I was governor for every person who lived in [Massachusetts], not just those who voted for me or who agreed with me. Gov. DeSantis should recognize he holds the same responsibilities and fight for all Floridians’ voices to be heard,” Deval Patrick, a recent entrant to the campaign, wrote.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg wrote: “This issue isn’t just about our elections — it’s about our core democratic principles. My administration’s 21st Century Voting Rights Act will fight racial and partisan gerrymandering, reduce big money in politics, and make voting dramatically easier for all.”
Amendment 4, approved by a supermajority of voters in November 2018, is tied up in court just now, with Gov. Ron DeSantis asking the Florida Supreme Court to issue an advisory opinion regarding a law that requires former felons to pay all fines, penalties, and restitution to qualify for restoration of their voting rights. The court heard oral arguments on Nov. 6.
Meanwhile, DeSantis has appealed a federal court judge’s holding that the state cannot deny voting rights to applicants who are unable to pay. However, the judge applied his ruling only to the 17 plaintiffs before him.
The Republican governor has been skeptical of criminal sentencing reform initiatives, having hit Democrat Andrew Gillum during their gubernatorial campaign last fall over Tallahassee’s crime rate and as governor emphasizing the need for people behind bars to serve their sentences. He did sign a law raising the monetary threshold for felony theft.
Fried sits with the governor and two Republican Florida Cabinet members as the state’s Executive Clemency Board, which hears appeals for civil rights restoration. She has complained since taking office in January that the board’s rules are outdated and the process takes too long.
She posted a link to an opinion article by former Gov. Charlie Crist — elected governor as a Republican, but serving now in Congress as a Democrat. Crist wrote that his administration restored rights for more than 150,000 applicants while, under DeSantis, 24 have won restoration thus far.
“This is unacceptable. Period. Ag Comm @nikkifried has called for a return to the clemency standards established by former governor @RepCharlieCrist, but Ron DeSantis & the [Republican] Cabinet members refuse to do the right thing,” Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo wrote.
Additional state Democrats weighed in, including José Javier Rodríguez, a state House member from Miami-Dade County. He noted that felon disenfranchisement has roots in the Jim Crow era.
“For a decade Republicans effectively shut down the clemency process and #Amendment4 was the response … but voting rights restoration isn’t partisan. It passed in 2018 with 64.5 percent of the vote,” Rodríguez continued.
“Since #Amendment4, the Legislature has made it harder for those with financial obligations to vote (many of us fought those efforts!) and @GovRonDeSantis (who campaigned against #SecondChances) is still fighting against full implementation. While states like Kentucky move forward to restore voting rights, here in Florida we are still fighting to implement the will of the voters. Hey GOP, Floridians believe in #SecondChances. Please pay attention.”
Update: U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey added this: “For years, the right to vote for millions of Americans — disproportionately in communities of color — has been under assault. As president, I’ll restore voting rights to those who have been incarcerated by passing a new Voting Rights Act.”