Some Fine States, Part IV – Florida

Florida may seem like a zany state, but maybe that’s because it’s such a microcosm for America.

Welcome to Florida, indeed. Perhaps one of the wildest and wooliest states in the Union when it comes to electoral politics, the Sunshine State has many clashing stories to tell. In 2000 it was ground zero in the post-election standoff between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Since then, it has continued to see a huge influx of residents from all over the country — and all over Latin America. Floridians are getting younger, more diverse and more difficult than ever to predict at the polls. And while the state adds tens of thousands of former felons to its voting rolls and expands its marijuana industry, GOP leaders are fighting federal vaccine rules, making it harder to vote by mail and limiting public input on redistricting.

Photograph via Shutterstock.com

Political analyst Susan MacManus calls Florida the most complex and difficult swing state to win. Many assumptions about how voters vote, whether based on age or ethnicity, go to die in the Sunshine State. And as Florida’s population gets younger and more diverse, the state is pushing the needle on democracy — in both directions: as it amplifies voting rights in some ways and dampens them in others.

Then the Republican nominee for governor, Ron DeSantis speaks at a Trump rally in Tampa in 2018. While he served in the U.S. House of Representatives, DeSantis was a vocal supporter of Donald Trump. As governor, DeSantis has been reluctant to push Trump’s voter-fraud narrative.

Photograph by J.C. Tabb via Shutterstuck.com

One prime political myth that Florida explodes is that of “the Latino vote.” MacManus tells Will and guest-host Paul Reyes, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review that Americans of Hispanic origin simply do not constitute a monolithic political bloc. Their age, their countries of origin, the length of time their families have lived in the United States and their economic status, among other factors, make Latinos in Florida as politically unpredictable as anyone. And Hispanic voters, like voters from all walks of life in her state, are registering more and more as “no party affiliation.”

Yet partisanship in the Sunshine State is only ramping up. With support from GOP legislators, Gov. Ron DeSantis has led the charge in passing restrictive voting laws and banning mask mandates in public schools. And during his tenure state university professors are being blocked from testifying against those measures, raising concerns about academic censorship.

But none of that mess has disheartened voting rights activist Desmond Meade, who heads a coalition that pushed through one of the biggest re-enfranchisement efforts in America in half a century.

A former convict himself — or as he likes to say, a “returning citizen” — Meade recovered from drug addiction in the early 2000s and embarked on a quest to restore voting and other civil rights to felons who have served their time. Beating the odds, Floridians agreed with him by nearly 2-1 in a referendum in 2018 that changed the state constitution, ending a post­–Civil War era policy intended to disenfranchise formerly enslaved people. This journey was deeply personal for Meade, he tells Democracy in Danger producer Robert Armengol: Only weeks before we released this episode, Meade finally had his own civil rights fully restored.

About our guests

Susan MacManus is a distinguished professor emerita of political science at the University of South Florida. She has contributed to The New York Times, CNN and Fox News, and has been called the most quoted political analyst in Florida. Among other work, MacManus is the author of Young v. Old: Generational Combat in the 21st Century (Routledge, 1995) and Minority Trailblazers: The Men and Women Who Changed the Face of Florida Government (University Press of Florida, 2016). She also co-wrote The South and the Transformation of U.S. Politics (Oxford University Press, 2019) as well as the textbook Politics in States and Communities, 15th Edition (Pearson, 2015). Follow MacManus on Twitter @DrMacManus.

Desmond Meade is a lawyer, civil rights activist and author. He serves as president and director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Meade was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2019, and is a 2021 MacArthur Fellow. He has spoken before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United Nations, he written for Al-Jazeera, MSNBC and Fox News. Last year Meade published his first book, Let My People Vote: My Battle to Restore the Civil Rights of Returning Citizens (Beacon Press, 2020). Follow him on Twitter @desmondmeade.

Paul Reyes is a guest-host on this week’s show. He edits the literary magazine VQR and is the author of Exiles in Eden: Life Among the Ruins of Florida’s Great Recession (Henry Holt and Co., 2010) — a book that chronicles the impact of the 2008 financial crisis on homeowners in the Sunshine State. Reyes has written for The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Mother Jones, the Oxford American and others. His essay “Opportunity Knocks,” which appeared in VQR, was a finalist for a Harry Chapin Media Award. Reyes’s work has been nominated for a National Magazine Award in Feature Writing and a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. A native of Philadelphia, Reyes spent much of his childhood in Florida; his father and mother are from Cuba and Colombia, respectively. Follow him on Twitter @reyes_edits.

This episode was released on Nov. 3, 2021.

What we’re reading

By our guests

Even before the turn of the century, MacManus was predicting what the 2000s would look like for Florida, in Young v. Old. And Florida, she argued, was just a case study for the generational conflict that America would face in a new millennium.

Her more recent book Minority Trailblazers recounts the personal struggles of political leaders from racial and ethnic minority groups in Florida since the 1960s.

In The South and the Transformation of U.S. Politics, MacManus and her co-authors argue that shifts in the political geography of the former Confederate states since 1968 — including the rise of Republican dominance and the influence of the religious right — have altered national politics more than any other factor.

Catch up on much of MacManus’ popular analysis in the Sayfie Review, including her most recent column on how Florida’s growing generational divide might affect the 2022 midterms.

Let My People Vote is Meade’s story of perseverance in life and grassroots activism. He writes about how he went from contemplating his own death at the edge of a railroad to leading the effort to pass Amendment 4 in his state.

You can watch Meade speak about his work on New York’s Hot 97 and, in an interview ahead of the 2020 election, with CBS’s 60 Minutes.

Read all of Reyes’s short pieces for VQR, from reflections on the Afghan war to the pandemic.

His book, Exiles in Eden, explores the Great Recession from a worm’s eye view: Reyes wrote about working for his dad’s business, trashing out foreclosed homes.

From around the web

In West Palm Beach, early voting signs in 2020 were printed in Spanish and English, reflecting the bilingual culture of South Florida. The legislature has since passed new election restrictions under Senate Bill 90, which limits how early voting takes place and reduces the number of ballot dropboxes in counties.

Photograph via Shutterstock.com

Just ahead of the vote on Amendment 4 in Florida, the New York Times Magazine ran this profile of Meade and his coalition’s campaign.

This month Gov. DeSantis called a special session of Florida’s legislature to push back on federal and local covid-mitigation protocols.

Earlier in the year, DeSantis signed into law sweeping changes to the state’s election procedures, which critics say will make it harder for minorities and poor constituents to vote.

GOP lawmakers in Florida announced recently that they will buck tradition and not sit down with citizens around the state to hear their concerns about the state’s proposed legislative and congressional maps.

At the same time, the governor’s office and most Republican leaders have largely shied away from calls by right-wing conservatives for a forensic audit of the 2020 election.

A transcript of this episode is available here.

Heard on the show

The music we used to score our piece on Desmond Meade came from a variety of sources, in this order: Podington Bear’s “Dark Matter,” off the 2013 album Thoughtful; Daniel Birch with “Heart,” from Music Made in Isolation (2020); “Phoebe Yoshiko,” by Top Critters, off their 2011 release Artsongs; and Serge Quadrado’s “Russian Life,” on the collection Russian Soul (2019). We closed off the segment with Austin Leonard Jones of Austin, Texas, crooning “Florida,” from his 2012 record Ponderosa.

We signed off with Susan MacManus to the sound of a 1937 jazz rendition, by the Mills Brothers and Louis Armstrong, of “The Old Folks at Home,” a.k.a. “Swanee River” — the state song of Florida. Originally written by Stephen Foster in 1851 as a minstrel tune, the lyrics got a makeover in 2008 to remove offensive language romanticizing the slave South.

Our theme music, as always, is the title track off the 2010 album Neogrotesque, by the Montreal band Tortue Super Sonic.

Bonus content

Listen to Robert’s full conversation with Desmond Meade.

About this series

This is the second episode in a miniseries on critical issues in government by the people around the United States. Join Will and Siva as they examine how state capitals have become battlegrounds for acrimonious national politics — but also, at their best, experiments in defending the democratic process and democratic ideals.

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