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OPINION

Bozelko: Florida Republicans may have lost presidency for Trump

Staff Writer
Stephenville Empire-Tribune
Chandra Bozelko

On Oct. 7, a Quinnipiac University poll indicated that former Vice President Joe Biden leads President Donald Trump in the swing state of Florida by 11 points. Biden’s much further along than he was about a month ago, when the Cook Political Report downgraded the Sunshine State race from “lean Democrat” to a “toss up” and said Biden should reconnect with Latinos and Trump needed to “get back white voters.”

The most recent appellate decision about the role of fines and fees in voter registration is preventing that for the president. And it’s what his own party wanted.

Last month, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held that a statute that curtailed the effects of Amendment 4 - the constitutional amendment passed by ballot measure in 2018 that restored voting rights lost to felony convictions in Florida - is constitutional.

Pursued and passed by Republicans in the Florida Legislature, the statute requires people with felony records to pay off fines and fees before registering to vote. As of Oct. 5, the original voting registration deadline in the Sunshine State (the deadline was extended to Oct. 6 because of website malfunctions) the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition - the organizations behind Amendment 4 - paid off $25 million in outstanding fees. That covers about 37,000 new voters; no one knows exactly.

If the Court of Appeals had struck down the statute, pretty much anyone with a felony record could have voted; there were 1.4 million when the amendment passed two years ago. Now far fewer can, and that makes the judicial opinion one of the worst things to happen to Trump’s re-election prospects this year.

It’s a common misperception and Republican talking point that people with criminal records will automatically support Democratic candidates. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said in 2015: ”(Democrats) go in and fight to give the right to vote to convicted felons. Why? Because the Democrats know convicted felons tend to vote Democrat.” “Fox and Friends” co-host Brian Kilmeade warned his audience in 2017 that “convicted felons” were Democrats’ “secret weapon.” The push to allow felons to vote is more about gaining Democratic voters than rehabilitating people, wrote columnist Kevin Williamson in the National Review in 2019.

While anecdotal evidence of formerly incarcerated people supporting Trump often surfaces around the country - rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine recently said he’d support Trump, and Alice Marie Johnson stumped for the president at the Republican National Convention - none of it had been confirmed until this year, when criminal justice news outlet The Marshall Project and Slate Magazine released results from a survey administered in prisons. They polled over 8,000 incarcerated people, and both white and minority prisoners supported President Trump above other named candidates.

Because the survey administrators saw this as a representative sample, it stands to reason that similar proportions of the over 600,000 people who leave custody every year have the same political inclinations. It’s not clear how many survey respondents - if any at all - will be voting this November.

In a Bloomberg analysis that named newly franchised voters in Florida one of the groups who will decide the presidential election, Paula Hill, a formerly incarcerated woman who works for a bail fund, was quoted: “Being honest with you, I don’t like either Biden or Trump. Biden signed the ’94 crime bill, which put a lot of people in jail.”

The appellate decision on Amendment 4 snatched ballots right out of the hands of people who don’t like Biden.

Twenty years ago, Florida and its felony disenfranchisement statute fueled most of the speculation that another former vice president, Al Gore, should have and would have won the presidency. Books were written about it: Sasha Ambramsky’s “Conned: How Millions Went to Prison, Lost the Vote, And Helped Send George W. Bush to the White House” helped sustain the myth that felons were Democrats.

As it turns out, the accusations that Bush stole the election were based on overly sanguine statistical modeling. A more recent and closer analysis of the 2000 election in Florida predicted that Bush would still have won even if no one lost their voting rights because of a criminal conviction.

In fact, Bush’s margin of victory would have been about 9- to 13-times larger than it was if felons had been voting. A majority of them in 2000 were white men who were traditional, party-line voters for the GOP. To have won the Sunshine State, Gore would have needed 36% of them to vote for him, which “seems implausible” to researchers at Northwestern University.

In theory, it’s possible that Republicans would have empowered an opposing constituency by ceasing their opposition to Amendment 4, but it’s doubtful. A more likely scenario is that they’d re-enfranchise people in Florida and most simply wouldn’t vote at all. In the Marshall Project/Slate poll, the only prison group larger than Trump supporters were those who didn’t know who they’d support or weren’t going to vote at all, which reflects national statistics: Only about 8% to 14% of restored voters actually turn out.

But those few votes - 8% to 14% of 1.4 million people means between 100,000 and 200,000 ballots - might have been more than what Trump needed to put Florida’s 29 electoral college votes in his column. Apparently he doesn’t want them.

In the past 100 years, only four presidential races went to candidates who lost Florida - Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, Calvin Coolidge and Warren G. Harding. It’s possible to lose Florida and win the nation - but it’s not likely.

Florida Republicans would have been wise to keep Amendment 4 in place, without restrictions, but they didn’t. They brought this on themselves.

Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at outlawcolumn@gmail.com.