David Daley’s book UNRIGGED: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy throws a lifeline of hope to anyone who may sometimes feel like they’re drowning in a sea of despair. Hope emanates from the stories of Americans from all walks of life who recognized that the political system was rigged and decided to change it. Despite the naysayers and the obstacles faced, they persisted. While not every effort to unrig the system results in victory, without a dogged determination to persist, the rate of success would likely be negligible. Daley’s book details some of the most important work being performed in a political environment desperately in need of citizen heroes.
I was fortunate enough to meet two of the heroes in this book, Desmond Meade and Katie Fahey, at the 2019 Unrig Summit in Nashville.
As a resident of Florida, I became aware of Desmond Meade and his Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FFRC) juggernaut in the spring of 2017. As an open primaries activist in a closed primary state, I became personally involved with the Florida Constitution Revision Commission (CRC). With assistance from the national organization Open Primaries, I testified before the commission at a series of public hearings and committee meetings and enlisted others to do the same. Our efforts resulted in open primaries being the second most popular issue raised; second only to the automatic restoration of voting rights for “returning citizens”.
The FFRC was so successful in their petition drive that multiple commissioners were able to withdraw their proposals from the CRC. The question of whether to automatically restore voting rights to felons upon completion of their sentences would be decided by Florida voters. The ability to have voters decide would not be due to the benevolence of a group of political appointees, but due to the collective efforts of citizens who believed in second chances. These citizens not only believed in second chances, but they also abhorred the machinations that subjected an application for the restoration of voting rights to the whims of a small group of partisan elected officials.
In Florida, where Democrats and Republicans are pretty much evenly split statewide and where a ballot initiative must garner 60% approval, Meade and the FFRC had to appeal to a broad swath of voters. As Jane Rayburn, a senior director at EMC Research, was quoted on page 19:
Making it a partisan issue… That messaging doesn’t work and it’s something the campaign has been really disciplined about. Across party lines, racial lines, geographic lines, people feel that if you have paid your debt, the debt is paid. We’ve made sure that this is an inclusive campaign.”
We have seen this kind of broad support for previous ballot initiatives on water and land conservation (2014) and medical marijuana (2016) followed by the legislature’s after-action responses attempting to circumvent the will of voters. The 2018 Florida amendment for restoring voting rights to felons was no exception, as was the Michigan amendment to end gerrymandering. While Desmond and FRRC continue fighting for second chances in the courts, Katie has created a new organization aimed at sharing her newly acquired knowledge with activists in other states.
When I met Katie for the first time, she was already a hero of mine. As a grassroots activist, I found her movement, having begun with a Facebook post, not only remarkable, but inspiring. I followed Voters Not Politicians’ progress as the story unfolded and recently watched Slay The Dragon. Katie was/is a “rock star” in the reform movement.
Before we met in person and became friends on Facebook, I would periodically see where she had “liked” a post of mine. When you’re fighting an uphill battle, and occasionally thinking about giving up, it’s heartening to get some positive reinforcement from someone who has been in the trenches. Seeing another such victory amidst a toxic partisan political environment provides indisputable evidence that people-powered change is possible.
After the CRC thumbed their noses at Florida’s independent voters, I formed a political committee and began a grassroots petition drive for open primaries. At the time, I had no expectation that we would be able to collect 766,200 signatures, but I hoped our refusal to give up would continue the momentum built during the CRC and that our effort would attract the attention of some big donors. Somehow the stars aligned, and a wealthy Miami businessman wrote a big check to another organization that had attempted a ballot initiative five years earlier. Florida citizens will vote on Amendment 3 this November.
The approval of 2018’s Amendment 4 restored voting rights to 1.4 million returning citizens. A huge achievement by any measure, and the accolades bestowed upon Meade, the FRRC, and everyone involved are well deserved. This year, we have an opportunity to expand voting rights in Florida again. Amendment 3 has the potential to bring 3.6 million registered independent voters (27% of the electorate) into the primary process for state offices where some 85% of races are decided.
Even after Floridian’s approved a “Fair Districts” amendment in 2010, and new maps were drawn after years of court battles, races still produce lopsided representation. Republicans control the Florida government on every level, and low turnout closed primaries result in elected officials accountable only to a small sliver of the citizenry. This must change! Florida should look to California, through an unbiased lens, where adoption of a top two open primary has yielded positive results in a state controlled by Democrats.
Dogged determination was required for me to trudge onward after being disappointed by the CRC, and it is required as we continue building our network of supporters and promote Amendment 3 in the face of stiff opposition from the political parties. Win or lose in November, the work doesn’t end, because there will always be room for further improvement.
Steve Hough is a lifelong independent and became an activist for political reform after retiring as an accountant. He is the director of Florida Fair and Open Primaries.
Politics for the People Zoom Call
with Author David Daley
Sunday, May 31st
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