A business organization founded by the ultra-conservative Koch Brothers recently announced its support for Florida’s Amendment 4. That measure – on the ballot in November -- will return the eligibility to vote to people with past felonies who have completed all terms of their sentences--including any probation, parole, and restitution. It excludes those convicted of homicide or felonies sexual in nature.
Mark Holden, chairman of Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce and senior vice president of Koch Industries, announced the endorsement in September. It surprised some political observers, but maybe it shouldn’t have. As part of a platform of libertarian and conservative causes, the Koch Brothers have worked toward reducing mass incarceration -- a plague that costs our country billions of dollars in corrections spending and in the lost productivity of those who are incarcerated.
The Florida Parole Commission has said that people who have paid their debt to society and then proceed to vote are three times less likely to re-offend. So, Amendment 4 makes perfect sense for the Koch Brothers.
That announcement also punctures the idea that Amendment 4 is a purely partisan issue. While it is true that GOP gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis has spoken out against the measure, a recent University of North Florida poll revealed that 62 percent of Florida Republicans favor it. Among Democrats, 83 percent are backing it, including candidate for governor Andrew Gillum.
Another major conservative political organization, the Christian Coalition, has also endorsed Amendment 4. In announcing Freedom Partners’ support, Holden said:
“We believe that when individuals have served their sentences and paid their debts as ordered by a judge, they should be eligible to vote. If we want people returning to society to be productive, law abiding citizens, we need to treat them like full-fledged citizens…. This will make our society safer, our system more just, and provide for real second chances for returning citizens.”
Florida is one of only four states in the Union that permanently bans “returning citizens” from voting until they petition state leaders and are formally returned the ability to vote. In Florida, due to a backlog of thousands of cases, this process will currently take about 15 years –and even then, an applicant can be denied. About 1.4 million people would regain the ability to vote, if Amendment 4 passes this November.
Among those currently banned from voting are thousands of military veterans who encountered problems with the law after leaving the armed forces. And many more thousands of disenfranchised persons have been working and paying taxes for years. They are suffering from “taxation without representation” and that has always been wrong—no matter what party you belong to.
Desmond Meade, president of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a group spearheading the Amendment 4 effort, is a returning citizen. Early in life, Meade was convicted of various non-violent crimes related to drug addiction but turned his life around and graduated from Florida International University Law School. He thanked Holden and the Koch Brothers:
“There is a simple reason why this measure has strong, broad support across the ideological spectrum: because Americans believe that when a debt is paid, it’s paid,” Meade said. “It fixes a broken system for our family members, friends, and neighbors that have paid their debt in full and have earned the opportunity to participate in and give back to their communities.”
Neil Volz, political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, was convicted of fraud in Washington, D.C., where he was an attorney. Volz moved to Florida after completing probation and spent years trying to regain his ability to vote. The process was so long and onerous he eventually gave up.
Volz, like the Koch Brothers, labels himself an ideological conservative. He says a common misconception about Amendment 4 is the belief that most of the people who will benefit are African-Americans and Hispanics. Since those demographic groups tend to vote Democrat, some people believe passing the amendment would benefit the Democratic Party. But the truth, Volz says, is most people disenfranchised by current clemency rules are white, like him.
“This is an everybody issue,” Volz says. “We have people from all races, all walks of life, all political persuasions, impacted by this.”
The ability to vote is not, and should never be, a partisan issue. Vote “Yes” on Amendment 4!
John Lantigua is the staff investigative journalist for the ACLU of Florida.