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The Florida GOP’s Assault on Democracy

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Last November, an extraordinary coalition of groups from across the political spectrum helped push Florida’s Amendment 4, which restores voting rights for the nearly 1.4 million Floridians with felony convictions in their past, across the electoral finish line.

Constitutional amendments need at least 60 percent support to become law in Florida. In the final tally, Amendment 4, which allows all felons except those convicted of murder or sex offenses to apply for restoration of their voting rights upon completion of their sentence, got nearly 65 percent backing—1 million more votes than any political candidate received in the state’s elections that year. Florida voters—across racial, economic, and party lines—came out in favor of reenfranchisement.

“The idea of second chances, it resonated with people. People could connect to that. People were going to vote for their neighbors, friends, family members, not for a partisan agenda or an ideology. It was built on the lines of humanity, not something else. That was cool. It helped break through the noise of today’s politics,” said Neil Volz, one of the leading spokespeople for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a grassroots group representing “returning citizens”—ex-prisoners and other felons.

Volz is a former Washington lobbyist who played a key role in the Jack Abramoff scandal and received a felony conviction for conspiracy. A hefty, bespectacled, bearded man, Volz went from being a highly paid Washington insider to being a felon, shunned by his erstwhile colleagues. Although he didn’t spend time behind bars, he was sentenced to probation and community service and was fined for his actions.

Trying to start his life afresh, Volz moved to Central Florida, aware that in doing so, he was relocating to one of a handful of states that locked felons into permanent second-class citizenship, making it all but impossible for them to vote again. He picked up minimum-wage work as a janitor and in his spare time, along with some friends he made who had also lost their right to vote, began traveling around the state, talking to people about the need for second chances and the injustice of permanent disenfranchisement.

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