Desmond Meade pumped his fist in the air and Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” blasted from the speakers. Many of the former felons — liberal and conservative, black and white, radical reformers and deplorables alike — who packed this Orlando hotel conference room mouthed the words along with him. “If you had one shot to seize everything you ever wanted,” they sang. “Would you capture it or just let it slip?”
They were this close to earning back their right to vote. But even larger than that, this mighty moral coalition stood on the verge of winning the largest expansion of voting rights since the 1960s — the re-enfranchisement of 1.4 million Floridians, 10 percent of the state’s adult population — and shattering one cruel, nearly 150-year-old vestige of Jim Crow-era racism.
When people feel voiceless, sometimes that frustration spills into direct and unprecedented action. We’ve seen it nationwide as American streets remain filled with protesters of all races, generations, and ideologies demanding an end to police injustice and spotlighting structural racial inequality.
The outrage over the brutal and senseless deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have galvanized Americans to insist that policing be reimagined and demilitarized. It would be a massive shift. But we have seen recent dramatic examples of what can happen when everyday citizens unite across partisan lines and fight for the kind of democracy they want.
Just look at what Meade’s Florida Rights Restoration Coalition accomplished. Felon disenfranchisement was written into Florida’s state constitution after the Civil War as an effort by whites to maintain power, coupled with “Black Codes” that turned petty theft and other minor crimes most likely to be committed by poor minorities into felonies. Years of regular legislative efforts failed to remove this blatant attempt to ensure white supremacy from Florida’s constitution — until Meade’s team persuaded Floridians that it had to change now. In November 2018, a supermajority of 64 percent of Florida voters united and won huge structural reform.
Think “defund the police” is too complicated? Well, nonpartisan majorities of 60 and 70 percent of citizens in 2018 reformed something as wonky as gerrymandering in red, blue, and purple states — in Utah, Missouri, Colorado, Ohio and Michigan — all because citizens were tired of uncompetitive and meaningless elections in which their voices were not heard.
In Michigan, where state legislative and congressional maps had been drawn by Republicans in such a way as to insulate GOP majorities at the ballot box for a decade, even when Democrats routinely won hundreds of thousands more votes, citizens stood up and put a shocking end to partisan gerrymandering. A 27-year-old woman working at a Grand Rapids recycling nonprofit launched the state’s redistricting revolution with a Facebook post. People understood they had no choice if they wanted their government back: For example, in 2012, voters tried to override an “emergency manager” provision that allowed the state to take over city governments. Legislators brushed the vote aside, reinstated the provision, and when the state appointed an emergency manager to run Flint, he poisoned the city’s water supply by switching its source to the Flint River.
That social media post generated thousands of volunteers, who formed a nonpartisan group called Voters Not Politicians, which then spent nights and weekends working to collect more than 430,000 signatures to create a vote on amending the constitution. In November 2018, more than 61 percent of Michiganders voted yes and created an independent commission to draw maps moving forward.
Two millennial couples in Idaho, frustrated that 70,000 citizens there lacked health insurance because the state legislature had refused for six consecutive years to accept money from the federal government to expand Medicaid, found a similar way around their own representatives. They bought an old RV, renamed it the Medicaid Express, and drove statewide collecting signatures for a ballot initiative of their own. They won, with 62 percent in a bright red state.
In nearby North Dakota, lawmakers surgically tailored a voter ID bill that specifically required the one thing they knew that the state’s largest minority group, Native Americans, lacked on tribal land: a street address. When — after multiple defeats in federal court — the legislature finally found a judge who was willing to OK this chicanery, the tribes got to work. They brought in mapping experts who used sophisticated GIS programs to create an address for every home, and then bought ID machines they literally burned through. Turnout soared on Native American land. And the legislative sponsor of the original voter ID bill lost to Ruth Buffalo, the first Native American woman ever elected to the state legislature as a Democrat.
Power structures don’t surrender willingly. Florida’s legislature required a modern-day poll tax before re-enfranchisement; this month, a federal court stepped in to reaffirm the people’s will. In Michigan, Republicans have brazenly filed suit claiming that the independent commission is unfair to exclude politicians, lobbyists, and their families from drawing districts. Idaho and other states have tightened rules over initiatives and made it even harder to reach the ballot. Victories must not only be won, they must be defended.
Perhaps this means reimagining how much effort is required by citizens. But remember Desmond Meade as citizens march on behalf of reimagining the police and the meaning of social justice. In 2018, citizens everywhere ignored those who said the work of structural change would be too difficult or warned that the odds of victory seemed far too uncertain for such a heavy lift.
Then they devoted long hours and came together by the thousands to make those dreams real at the ballot box, joined by a resounding majorities of their fellow citizens and inspiring Americans in red states, in blue states, in every state who still believe that representative democracy must represent us all, equally.
We don’t need the perfect presidential candidate or judicial superheroes to save us. Good thing.
These battles on behalf of what’s right — led by millennials, by former felons, by suburban women, by Americans of all ages and races who refuse to believe that creating change was beyond them — are the proof. It’s reason for optimism. It’s reason to believe that the current protests can make real change. There’s a mighty unrigging underway.
David Daley is the author of “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy” and the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count.” His work has appeared in “The New Yorker,” “The New York Times,” “Slate,” “The Guardian,” “The Atlantic,” and many other publications. He is the former editor in chief of “Salon.”