By Michael Dobson

We may be witnessing a shame,  a sham and a missed opportunity.

It would be a shame that Florida's African American community could never live down, if the restoration of voting rights amendment is not on the November 2018 ballot.   The initiative has to meet a deadline of  February 1, 2018 for turning in the requisite number of legitimate  petitions for the Restoration of Voting Rights Constitutional  Amendment in order for it to make the November 6, 2018 ballot in Florida.  It’s not looking good, and that’s indeed a shame.

With more than 20 years experience in  Florida politics, I am aware of the amount of money and organization required to obtain the petitions needed for a constitutional amendment that reaches Florida’s ballot, and the muscle needed for a win on election day. This petition effort and its lack of success has for a long time concerned this writer. Early on, I was concerned that   the organization behind the initiative lacked the wherewithal to succeed. Also, from a distance, the petition gathering looked like a  PR campaign  for an  individual,  rather than a cause that we all should care about.  

Upon checking with the Florida Division of Elections office on November 14, 2017 and having staff patiently answer my many questions about the Felon Voting Rights Ballot Initiative,  the reality became clear. The trajectory was not moving toward success.  For instance,  with   2 ½ months away from a February 1, 2018 deadline, the certified petition  count  by the State Division of Election stands at  358,000, after nearly three years or more.  By February 1, 2018, Florida's supervisors of elections must have had received  766, 222 certified/legitimate  petitions, with certain proportionality standards met determinant upon a formula that uses county and congressional district demographics. Meaning, all petitions can’t come from simply the most populated counties.   The Supervisor of Elections offices  then have 30 days to submit their count of certified petitions to the Florida Division of Elections. 

The issue of felon voting rights , no matter how you try to frame it,  is seen by all as an issue specific to the African American Community, although it affects many other  demographics.  That fact alone signifies a nations wink and nod to its knowledge  of the inherent institutional biases that exit in the criminal justice system.  In my memory, this  would be the first effort to place  a constitutional amendment on the ballot for an issue that predominantly impacts  African Americans. So, let me be clear, failure of the ballot initiative, would be  a  failure of and by Florida's African American  community. That failure would be a bad mark for civil rights organizations and on the African American church community.  Further, the failure would-be both symbolic and real. It would be a failure of Florida’s black community  to coalesce around a cause that affects it disproportionately.  It would also be a failure of the Caucasian community  and its churches to help right a wrong that’s not disproportionately done to them, but to their brother instead.

Why has this been so difficult? Well, there are some hard  and unsettling truths. First, this IS a partisan issue, and any attempt to suggest it is not is in the end disingenuous. It is also  an unattractive issue, as there  is a kneejerk  recoil from the pious among us when you ask that they sign a petition to help anything with the word ”felon” in it. Moreover, there are  problems  rooted into some of the dynamics within the African American community itself, that has left the effort flat. These are  dynamics  that well meaning committed  liberal leaning organizations that support issues of importance in the Black community,  often fail to understand.  Those in charge of the purse strings often do not  understand  that the credit for any  success has to be as a collective, not individual based. When it is the latter, which it is in this case, unfortunately a high level of animus stifles the movement, making execution impossible. There are cultural truths about power sharing and collaboration in the African America community that, If not dealt with or understood, can leave any good cause in tatters.   Moreover, resources has to be shared with a large number of organizations or individuals who are often left wanting  when resources are made available to target the things they work on in the trenches daily, with no fan fare… or money.    

As an illustration of what’s not always understood by funders, some years ago, certain African America members of the legislature had a dust up with the Florida Democratic Party (FDP) about their  discontinuing  the practice of giving the electives a budget which they controlled  to hire people in their district for get out the vote (GOTV) efforts.  They tried to explain to the FDP that without money to spread around, to get buy in from community leaders  and hire folks easily, it could not produce high voter turn out. In this case, the funders of the felon voters rights amendment will have thrown its dollars down a rabbit whole if it does not understand that truth and others. For instance,  It is a colossal mistake for them to  appear to have  cast their lot financially into only  one organization (and connected ones), and not the whole community and a broad  swath of organizations.  Also, when funders decided that it would not fund other organizations seeking to help  the host organization  to accomplish its shared goal, they  further doomed their fate.

So, then there is the sham. If televised or radio interviews tell you that there is 600,000-750,000 petitions,  and the state of Florida only reports 358,000, trust the official figures and know that there is a lot of work to do. With that petition jujitsu, unfortunately , some key supporters have lost faith… coming to believe they cannot trust what the campaign is saying.   These  remaining  few months  are  crucial for this important ballot initiative. It’s a test for the African American community and for the organizers. Now, does it have a chance of making the petition deadline with 2 ½ months remaining? Yes it can, but it will  not if a correction in the approach is not made  to change the current trajectory.  

What I know is this, when the right to vote was essentially forever stripped of the 1.6 million Floridians who cannot vote today, there was no march on Tallahassee, there wasn’t any organizing from the streets or the pulpit. Each year  African America legislators file bills to reverse the current policy so that the   right to vote is restored automatically, and legislative leaders  never placed those bills on the agenda to be heard.  Those bills are DOA, each legislative session. And yet, there is not marching to the State capital or outrage in the streets about it. So, should we be surprised about where we found ourselves? Are we talking a good game, but not willing to back it up with work and action? Was William Shakespeare correct,  that  “the past is prologue”. If so,   it’s hard to understand how the deadline can be met.

If there is a chance, someone will need to call a huddle that  includes all interested participants,  and not be shy about sharing monetary resources. If there ever was one, this is indeed an all hands on deck moment for the African American community. Failure would leave  the African American community  appearing quite impotent... then irrelevant. The effort of those working on it daily from the beginning deserves a lot of respect and credit. But now,we are in a different place.  Turning around what is historically a racist policy,  rooted in efforts by southern governors to squash black voting after reconstruction, is an opportunity  to set the record straight about who we are as a state. It allows us to say that  Florida believes in second chances. Then the African American community would have also channeled the hopes and  spirit of Maya Angelou, to in the end say  “Still I Rise”. 

Michael Dobson is President of Dobson, Craig and Associates with over 20 years experience in Florida politics in Florida's Capital,  Chairman of Florida Voters Campaign Founder of Florida Renewable Energy Producers Association(FREPA) and Director of The Dream Foundation,Inc (overseeing Florida's MLK license plate)

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