Andrew Gillum, the Democratic mayor of Tallahassee, needs the support of black voters to become Florida’s first black governor. But he faces a major obstacle: A provision of the Florida Constitution with Jim Crow–era roots prevents more than 1.5 million Floridians — a disproportionate number of whom are black — from voting at all.
Like three other states, Florida permanently blocks people with felony convictions from voting. But the state’s process for restoring voting rights to people who have served their time is uniquely harsh: Felons can win back their voting rights only by appealing directly to the governor and other state officials. It can take years to win a hearing. Because of this, Florida is home to more disenfranchised felons than any other state. In 2016 the policy blocked more than 10 percent of the voting-age population and more than 20 percent of African-Americans from casting a ballot.
But this fall, organizers see a rare opportunity to overcome that barrier. Voters in November will weigh in on a proposed constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to most people who complete their sentences for felony convictions. (People convicted of murder and sexual offenses would be excluded.) Observers think the proposal could benefit Gillum by encouraging unlikely voters to go to the polls because they know someone disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.