Florida Rejects First Black Governor But Approves Restoration Of Felons' Voting Rights

The same voters who barely put Ron DeSantis into office also approved a proposal he opposed that helps a disproportionately black population.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. ― The same Florida voters who put Republican Ron DeSantis into the governor’s mansion on Tuesday also passed a constitutional amendment that automatically restores ex-felons’ right to vote ― something DeSantis had opposed.

While the former congressman from the Jacksonville suburbs eked out a 1-point win over Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, receiving just a hair under 50 percent of the vote, “Amendment 4” received 64 percent approval ― comfortably over the 60-percent threshold required for constitutional amendments.

“I don’t understand how you vote for Amendment 4 but then don’t vote for a governor to ensure the implementation of Amendment 4,” said Michelle Sherfield, a Gillum supporter attending his election night party at the candidate’s alma mater, Florida A&M University. “I can’t rationalize how you do one but don’t do the other.”

“It’s a grand irony,” said Marcia Owens, an environmental sciences professor who released her class early Tuesday to attend the Gillum party. “When they announced that Amendment 4 had passed, we said: ‘If only we’d had those votes for this election.’”

Neil Volz, the political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the primary group backing the amendment, said he was not surprised that people would back Amendment 4 as well as the state’s GOP nominee for governor.

“This is a movement from people from all walks of life. Republicans, Democrats, independents and people who have no party. It’s been that way since the beginning,” he said. “It’s no surprise at all to us. We knew that people who supported both governor candidates were going to be supporting Amendment 4.”

Currently, ex-felons wishing to have voting rights reinstated must undergo a lengthy process that includes petitioning the governor and independently elected Cabinet. The new amendment automatically gives voting rights back to felons who have completed their sentence, including probation and parole, with the exception of those convicted of sexual offenses and murder.

Gillum, who would have been the first African-American governor of Florida had he won, was a strong proponent of the amendment, which will affect 1.5 million Floridians, a disproportionate percentage of whom are black and Latino.

DeSantis had opposed the proposal. “An appallingly high percentage of people who get out of prison as convicted felons re-offend,” DeSantis said.

But it was not a major element of his campaign, and voters likely did not see a strong link between the two.

In Pasco County north of Tampa Bay, for example, DeSantis won 57 percent of the vote, while Amendment 4 won 61 percent approval. In all, in only six of the state’s 67 counties did the proposal receive less than 50 percent of the vote.

It’s not clear voters would have paid DeSantis much mind even if he had made opposition to the amendment a major issue. In 2002, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring the reduction of classroom sizes in public schools, even though then-Gov. Jeb Bush was energetically campaigning against it. (It was because of that amendment, in fact, that Bush later successfully pushed through an amendment requiring subsequent ballot initiatives to pass by 60 percent to take effect.)

Longtime Republican consultant Adam Goodman said that Tuesday night again proved the independence of the state’s voters when it came to their constitution. “Despite normal law-and-order reservations about ex-felons, Floridians revealed tonight that they prize fairness as a pillar of freedom,” he said.

HuffPost reporter Julia Craven contributed reporting from Tallahassee, Florida, and reporter Sam Levine contributed from New York.