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Vote Your Voice: In Florida, grantee organizations regroup after Amendment 4 setback

It is 23 years since Bonny McKinnon, then a teenager with no criminal record, got in a fight with her cousin in a Jacksonville, Florida, apartment. Exactly what happened that night may never be clear. But McKinnon was convicted of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. She served one year and one month in a Florida penitentiary.

For years, McKinnon wanted to vote but could not. She grew up in those years. She had three children, held down jobs and learned “to pick myself up and keep going.” When a state referendum to restore voting rights to people who had served their sentences passed overwhelmingly in 2018, McKinnon embraced the act of casting a ballot as “some kind of way to have your voice heard.”

But, now, McKinnon is one of an estimated 900,000 returning citizens barred from voting in Florida. A federal appeals court ruled in September that Floridians with felony criminal records are ineligible to cast a ballot unless they have paid back all their outstanding court fines and fees – in McKinnon’s case, at least $700.

Florida’s felony disenfranchisement law dates back to the mid-19th century. New constitutions and new statutes specifically designed to enforce white supremacy and keep Black citizens from exercising political power were also enacted by Southern states in the early days of Jim Crow segregation. After the Civil War, they expanded criminal codes to include offenses for which lawmakers believed Black people could be most easily convicted and then heightened the penalties for those laws.

The legacy of those laws remains today. When formerly incarcerated individuals return to society, they face limited educational, employment and housing opportunities. These policies persist in part because the very people affected by them are denied the right to vote and don’t have a say in their own future.

“They make it very hard for you to just want to live, just want to say, ‘Yes, America is great,’” said McKinnon, who is Black. “You have the hope of America being great, but for minorities and people of color, they make it impossible.”

To ensure equitable access to the ballot box in Florida and throughout the Deep South, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is investing up to $30 million from its endowment in nonpartisan, nonprofit voter outreach. The aim is to increase voter registration and participation among people of color, like McKinnon, over several election cycles.

In addition to Florida, the new Vote Your Voice initiative – a partnership with the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta – supports voter education and mobilization in Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi.

The campaign seeks to empower communities of color by aiding them in their fight against voter suppression; bolster Black- and Brown-led voter outreach organizations often ignored by traditional funders; support and prototype effective voter engagement strategies; and re-enfranchise formerly incarcerated people. The Vote Your Voice grantees – currently 40 in total – are encouraging millions of voters across the South to exercise their basic right to vote and ensure that they are able to elect, and hold accountable, candidates who represent their values.

A total of $10 million has been distributed in the first two rounds of grants: $2,910,000 million in Florida; $2,460,000 in Georgia; $505,000 in Alabama; $1,210,000 in Louisiana; $1,205,000 in Mississippi; $500,000 for a project focused on Alabama and Georgia; and $1,210,000 for multistate projects.

 In Florida, there have been successes, and there is much work to be done. For example:

  • Voting instructions: Last year, U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico displaced by Hurricane Maria successfully sued to force 32 counties to fulfill the obligation under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to provide instructions for voters with limited English proficiency.
  • Absentee voting: Mail-in votes in Florida can be thrown out for a missing or mismatched signature. A 2018 study by the ACLU and the University of Florida found that younger voters and voters of color were much more likely to cast vote-by-mail ballots that were rejected because of a signature problem.
  • Early voting: Florida requires eight days of early voting before each election. The state leaves it to county election supervisors to decide whether to add up to six days, including the final Sunday before Election Day. The lack of a statewide early voting standard creates unequal access to the polls.

“Every issue that we have seen be an obstacle to free and fair elections in Florida we will see again this November, because Florida has not addressed the voting issues it has historically faced,” said Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for the SPLC’s Voting Rights Practice Group. 

The SPLC and its partners are tackling those obstacles on the broadest of stages and in the most meticulous of ways. They continue to make the case for rights restoration in the Florida courts. They have joined other groups asking for common-sense safeguards for voters and poll workers amid the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. They called for an expansion of early voting opportunities and for voter protections at the polls. Working with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, they monitored polls during the August primary and will do so in November. And through virtual phone banks, the SPLC and its partners have contacted more than 43,000 potential voters. 

After Hurricane Sally made it particularly difficult for Black voters in Escambia County to cast ballots near their homes, the SPLC and its partners persuaded election officials to add a ballot drop box. 

For people like McKinnon, meanwhile, the legal jockeying over Amendment 4 is crushing. The initiative represented the largest act of enfranchisement nationwide since 1971, when the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18. But because lawmakers subsequently passed a law requiring returning citizens to first pay off any remaining court debt, the overwhelming majority of Florida residents with previous felony convictions who registered because of Amendment 4 will have to sit out the November election.

“Every issue that we have seen be an obstacle to free and fair elections in Florida we will see again … because Florida has not addressed the voting issues it has historically faced,” said Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for the SPLC’s Voting Rights Practice Group. “[But] here we are … able to exert pressure, able to adapt to a very challenging environment, because the SPLC is supporting these groups and has staff dedicated to working on these issues.” Here, voters wait in line to cast their early ballots in Miami Beach on October 20. Photo by Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

“People are feeling really beaten down.” said John Paul Taylor, who as voting rights restoration field director for the SPLC has spent the past two years encouraging people from marginalized communities in Florida and beyond to register and vote. “You’ve given them this spark of hope, and then it has been taken away.”

Despite the hurdles, the grants and the work SPLC supports are providing reason for optimism. 

“The SPLC was able to fund groups that are already embedded in the community, that already have the experience and the credibility to do this work,” Abudu said. “We are already seeing a significant increase in registration forms submitted. That is years of efforts that are coming to fruition today.

“Our response time to solve some of these problems has also increased. Now here we are … able to exert pressure, able to adapt to a very challenging environment, because the SPLC is supporting these groups and has staff dedicated to working on these issues.”

Here is a closer look at the grant recipients in Florida and how they are using the funding.

Dream Defenders – Grant amount: $200,000

Since its founding by young people of color outraged by the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in April 2012, Dream Defenders has been propelled by what its leaders call righteous anger. 

Coming of age amid racially motivated violence, political polarity and now a pandemic, the leaders say the need to ensure that all people can vote has never been more pressing. 

“We know that we need to participate,” said Executive Director Rachel Gilmer. “This is just being radically honest with our people.”

To that end, Dream Defenders is using the Vote Your Voice grant to hire organizers in far-flung Florida counties and to build its outreach to potential first-time voters, especially from Black and Brown communities.

“Young people are justified in feeling disillusioned right now, especially if it’s their first time voting,” Gilmer said. “We’re really trying to empower youth.”

Common Ground Project – Grant amount: $150,000

When early voting started in Florida for this year’s presidential election, the massive parking lot at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg was expected to fill with hundreds of cars for “Roll to the Polls” caravans.

The national effort to rally people to drive to early voting sites to drop off their vote-by-mail ballots is organized by several partners. Among them in St. Petersburg and around Florida is Common Ground Project.

The organization, founded in 2018, is encouraging Black voters, young voters and others to cast ballots. With outreach informed by research on the needs of communities around the state, its leaders say Common Ground Project works as hard to educate voters on issues as it does to get people to the polls. 

During the pandemic, that has meant passing out not just voting information but masks and food, funded in part by the Vote Your Voice grant. 

With support from the Vote Your Voice grant, Common Ground will also reach at least 150,000 voters through a digital education and mobilization campaign, community- and church-based outreach, educational events and days of action.

“The point is not to show up and just ask for something, but to be viewed as a validator,” said Executive Director Lisa Perry. “We just want to be there, whether it’s the middle of a pandemic or the middle of an election cycle, and ask, ‘Can we help you? What are your needs?’”

Engage Miami Civic Foundation – Grant amount: $150,000

Last summer, Rebecca Pelham sat down with young people across Miami-Dade County to explore why they have not turned out in large numbers to vote.

“There is a deep culture of disengagement in Miami,” said Pelham, the executive director of Engage Miami Civic Foundation. “Young people see corruption; they just don’t believe they have their own power. Our job is to tell the young people of this city who believe in justice, sustainability, civic access, that they can take back their future.”

Engage Miami, in its fifth year, engages young voters through experiences close to them, Pelham said. At local and city forums, on Miami college campuses and community events, “we talk about housing, transit, and we talk about how that all connects back to political power.”

In this election cycle, Pelham says Engage Miami has registered 20,000 voters. The Vote Your Voice grant has allowed it to erect billboards near highways and posters on bus shelters urging early voting, to send hundreds of thousands of mailers and “to put it all out there and not hold back,” Pelham said.  

“Voting is one of the most important tools in the toolbox,” Pelham said. “We want to make sure everyone has access to it.”

Faith in Florida – Grant amount: $275,000

For years, Florida’s Black churches have gathered their congregations and led them to the polls, driven by the belief that religious congregations can serve as a moral compass and societal base for community organizing and institutional change. 

Their strength in numbers combats voter suppression in the form of lack of accessibility for older voters and those with disabilities, lack of instructions for first-time voters and possible intimidation posed by others at the polls.

“Our faith leaders always stand against those who are trying to destroy democracy,” said Executive Director Rhonda Thomas. With funding from the Vote Your Voice initiative, Thomas said the organization has reached out to nearly 200,000 congregants at 800 congregations in nine counties. 

The organization also will use the Vote Your Voice grant to engage in conversations with 100,000 Black and Brown voters statewide through phone banking, texting, candidate forums and educational workshops.

“Those communities have felt left out,” Thomas said. “They now feel they have a voice that they are anxious to utilize, and it has helped build our volunteer program as well. I’m getting calls from everywhere.”

Florida Rights Restoration Coalition – Grant amount: $1 million 

When Desmond Meade started his petition to abolish the Florida law that prohibited people previously convicted of felonies from voting, he painted signs and distributed pamphlets himself. A formerly homeless returning citizen who had earned a law degree, Meade led allies in collecting more than 800,000 signatures, enough to put the issue on the statewide ballot. What had been a homegrown campaign won big. Amendment 4 – which restored voting rights to 1.4 million Florida residents – was approved in 2018 by more than 64 percent of the state’s voters.

Now, Meade’s coalition and its allies are waging legal battles in support of Amendment 4 and working to ensure that not only returning citizens, but also their families and their communities vote. The Vote Your Voice grant is empowering those efforts, Meade said. 

“We’ve always been an organization that takes obstacles and looks at them as opportunities,” Meade said. “We’re continuing our efforts; nothing has changed.”

With the Vote Your Voice grant, the group is conducting voter outreach focused on 1.1 million Black and Latinx voters in the most heavily incarcerated precincts across 35 Florida counties. The group aims to register returning citizens and mobilize voters via mail, relational organizing, digital and radio advertising, and Souls to the Polls.

League of Women Voters of Florida Education Fund – Grant amount: $175,000

In a large field next to a Black church, LWV member Cecile Scoon was registering voters at a fathers-and-sons gathering this fall.

The Florida League, like its counterparts across the country, has been educating and registering voters for years. This year, bolstered by the Vote Your Voice grant, it has made more hires, mailed more postcards to potential voters and, in an effort targeted at returning citizens, sent reentry voting kits containing a welcome letter, voting instructions and registration applications.

On that weekend day, Scoon encountered a young father with his children. He was skeptical about registering to vote.

“I told him his children were beautiful. Looking at them was a delightful experience. They were full of life and light and clearly happy to be outside with Dad. I said, we have to vote to protect our kids. Voting impacts the schools, the roads and the hospitals where our grandmothers get care.”

The man walked away, Scoon said. But, several hours later, just as the event was ending, he came back. And he registered to vote.

NALEO Educational Fund – Grant amount: $150,000

The Latinx electorate in Florida is younger, larger and more diverse than ever before.

For NALEO Educational Fund, part of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, politics is less important than representation. The organization is dedicated to facilitating full Latinx political participation in the electoral process.  

With the Vote Your Voice grant, NALEO Educational Fund is working to reach tens of thousands of Latinx households across Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties. The grant allows the group to buy television and radio ads and expand its digital outreach, phone, mail and online voter registration tool and its live, bilingual hotline.

“We remind people, you’re not voting for yourself,” said Chief Executive Officer Arturo Vargas. “You’re voting for your children, you’re voting for your families, you’re voting for your communities. We don’t approach this work to get out the vote for a particular policy outcome. This is about getting more Latinos to participate in the process.”

New Florida Majority Education Fund  – Grant amount: $500,000

On the last day to sign up to cast a ballot in the Nov. 3 election in Florida, Andrea Mercado was helping a man named Nicholas when the online voter registration system crashed. 

He “didn’t believe he would be able to register because the online system was making him print out his form and mail it,” said Mercado, executive director of New Florida Majority Education Fund. “We were able to share with him a post office [that was] open until 9 p.m. so it would be postmarked on time.”

It is moments like that, Mercado said, that give her hope and fuel her drive – as a daughter of immigrants – to lead an organization founded in 2009 to give voice to her community.

Through the Vote Your Voice grant, the organization will conduct voter registration, education, and mobilization statewide among Black and Brown communities, including returning citizens, in North and South Florida. The group’s aim is to register voters via calls, texting, digital and earned media, and in-person canvassing in compliance with CDC guidelines.

Organize Florida’s Education Fund – Grant amount: $310,000

In a recent Zoom meeting with community activists from Organize Florida, a woman recalled how the organization helped her and other tenants file complaints against a landlord who was trying to evict her. And they won.

“She spoke powerfully about how working with us had opened up her eyes to the possibility of changing the world we live in through organizing,” said Executive Director Stephanie Porta. “She is not only voting this year but actively encouraging everyone she knows to do the same. It’s moments like these that give me hope for the future.”

Organize Florida’s mission is to engage its members in building power to advance policies that challenge systemic inequity and improve their lives through campaigns that include public education, civic engagement, legislative advocacy and direct action. It is a multi-issue grassroots organization, representing mainly low-income women and women of color along the I-4 corridor in Florida, with offices in Hillsborough and Osceola counties. 

The Vote Your Voice grant will help the organization conduct voter registration, education, mobilization and protection, with a focus on low- to moderate-income people of color with a low propensity to vote along the I-4 corridor.

“It is our staff and members who keep me going even in the times we are currently living in,” Porta said. “I witness their resilience in the face of oppression every day, and that inspires me to never give up.”  

Illustration by Mary Kate McDevitt