Florida’s Midterm Madness

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If the recent midterm election results are any indication, the state of Florida could possesses an untapped reservoir of progressive energy despite the state’s historically conservative past and present.

In this year’s elections, 5.1 million Floridians (or 64% of voters) cast their ballots in support of a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to roughly 1.4 million people who have served prison time for felonies except murder and sexual felonies. Additionally Andrew Gillum – a progressive, black Democrat – won 1.2 million more votes than any other Democrat in any previous Florida gubernatorial race.

Nevertheless Gillum and his more conservative Democrat ballot mate, incumbent Senator Bill Nelson, both ultimately lost after a long and contentious recount. Despite the evidence of voter suppression, the statewide Democratic Party was wholly unwilling to mobilize and allowed the Republicans to dominate the discourse by focusing solely on the recounts designed just to “count every vote” rather than tackle the issue of voter suppression.  Ron DeSantis, a racist Trump supporter, has won the governorship. And outgoing Governor Rick Scott, who poisoned the state’s waterways and made his fortune partly through Medicare fraud, will assume Nelson’s Senate seat.

What are socialists to make of Florida’s midterm and its apparently contradictory results?

First, we should take to heart that, even in historically conservative parts of the U.S., progressive coalitions can win real victories. In Florida, Amendment 4, a ballot measure which restored voting rights to most felons, was won thanks to the efforts of the Say Yes to Second Chances campaign, a broad coalition of grassroots and community organizations across the state. This coalition included groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Socialist Alternative that gathered petition signatures to get the amendment on the ballot and later campaigned for “yes” votes during the election. It helped that there was no major campaign against it.

Winning this amendment is a major victory. It helps remedy Florida’s long, disgraceful history of voter disenfranchisement and restores basic political rights to the overwhelmingly working-class people caught up in Florida’s carceral system. The new voters are likely to skew toward progressive politics, creating more space for a potential independent working-class political alternative.

Nevertheless, we should be clear that these new voters are far from a guaranteed voting bloc for progressives. Unless progressive forces in the state mount a longer-term campaign in support of voting rights, many of the people affected by Amendment 4 will remain effectively disenfranchised by voter ID laws, long lines at polling places, and other obstacles the state political establishment places in the way of working-class political participation. Moreover, the pro-corporate politics that most Florida Democrats continue to advance will fail to resonate with these or other new voters in the future.

Still, Amendment 4 provides an example that shows that Southern progressives can win victories.

Second, socialists should be critically encouraged by Andrew Gillum’s strong showing. Though by no means a socialist, Tallahassee mayor Gillum put forward the boldest gubernatorial platform the state has ever seen. He advocated Medicare for All, supported a $15 an hour minimum wage, and vowed to end the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law which has frequently been used to defend perpetrators of gun violence – typically committed against people of color.

Gillum advanced these positions while campaigning for governor in a deeply conservative state that has never had a black gubernatorial candidate. But despite these “fringe” positions and his opponent’s frequent racist attacks, Gillum nevertheless came closer to victory than any Democrat since 1994. Had those whose voting rights were restored by Amendment 4 been able to vote in this most recent election, it is easy to imagine that Gillum would have won.

Gillum ultimately lost. Yet he received roughly one million votes fewer than Amendment 4. How can we explain this disparity? Obviously, deep-seated racism against Gillum and a lack of concerted opposition to Amendment 4 played a role. But more importantly, Gillum suffered from his association with the Florida Democratic Party. Unless voters investigated Gillum’s positions closely, they could easily assume he was similar to pro-corporate, establishment Democrats like Bill Nelson or Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who at their best, advocate corporate-friendly policies like “defending” access to Obamacare’s for-profit model of health care. Similarly, Gillum moderated some of the more progressive positions he had adopted during the primary, lending further credence to the notion that he was just another sell-out Florida Democrat. That he had previously served as a Hillary Clinton delegate in 2016 and had received large campaign donations from wealthy Florida real estate developers only helped reinforce this idea.

Nevertheless, the support for Gillum’s candidacy and the victory of Amendment 4 demonstrates that within the conservative South, there is an upswell of progressive opposition to the status quo that is looking for ways to fight back.

As socialists we should be clear that these kinds of contradictions will continue to play out as some seek to change the Democratic Party from within. The Florida midterms give evidence that Democrats are not prepared to fully fight the nationwide scourge of voter disenfranchisement, but are content with half measures. In Florida, disenfranchisement was apparent everywhere on election day. Massive lines formed around precincts in predominantly black and Latinx areas of the state, as well as in precincts near college campuses and working-class neighborhoods. Several polling places were located in gated communities that initially refused to admit non-resident voters. State authorities also failed to distribute close to 2,000 voting machines to precincts throughout the state. In addition, many media outlets called races for Republicans long before all the votes had been counted. The race for Commissioner of Agriculture for instance, was initially called for the GOP candidate, but after the official vote had been tallied, the Democratic candidate came out the actual winner. Despite this, Democrats limited their appeal to merely “count every vote” rather than to address the systemic problems of voter disenfranchisement which had played out before and during the election.

We should take the lesson that major victories for working people, like winning Amendment 4, can be won working outside the confines of the Democratic Party. With the current absence of an independent working class party which could begin to give a real alternative to the Democrats and Republicans in a state like Florida, the campaign to pass Amendment 4 demonstrates how working people can organize to win real change without becoming co-opted by corporate or establishment politics, and lay the foundation for independent, progressive political organizing in the future.

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