ORLANDO, Florida — When Susanne Manning went to prison for embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from her employer, she lost a lot of things, including her home, her job, her freedom.
But bigger than all that — as big, she said, as losing her relationship with her son — was losing the right to vote.
“I just felt like I wasn't part of society anymore. Like I just – why bother? I didn't belong. I didn't, I couldn't have a say. I remember putting on Facebook that out of all of the consequences of my prison stay, of my criminal behavior, out of all of the consequences, if I could have any one of them back, I would want the right to vote back,” she told VICE News.
Florida’s one of just three states in the nation where all convicted felons automatically lose the right to vote. According to the ACLU, Manning is just one of an estimated 1.7 million felons in Florida who can no longer vote.
But that could change after November 6, when Floridians vote on Amendment 4, a ballot measure that would restore voting rights to nonviolent felons who have served their sentences, finished their parole and paid their fees. The ACLU estimates that 1.4 million felons would be eligible to immediately get their right to vote back if the amendment succeeds.
Florida does allow some felons to restore their rights, but the process has gotten tougher under Republican Gov. Rick Scott, and the number of felons who’ve gotten their rights back have dropped precipitously from the previous administration. With Gov. Scott at the helm, the board has restored voting rights to just over 3,000 people over the past seven years — a huge drop from the previous administration, when 155,000 got their rights back in a four-year period.
To restore their rights, felons must go before the state’s clemency board for approval. The board — made up of the governor and his all Republican cabinet — has been criticized as biased in the past for asking black applicants loaded questions. A Palm Beach Post analysis of about half of those who had their rights restored under Scott found the governor restored voting rights to a lower percentage of blacks and Democrats — and a higher percentage of whites and Republicans — than any Florida governor in the past half-century.
Some Democrats in the state say restoring rights to individuals convicted of felonies could change the political landscape in the state.
“Make no mistake: if Rick Scott believed for one second that every one of these voters were Republican, he would have restored their rights eight years ago,” Jeremy Ring, the Democratic party’s nominee for state chief financial officer, told voters at a rally. “In a purple state, with 1.6 million voters that Rick Scott says are Democratic voters, that means we are no longer a purple state. We are a blue state.”
In Florida, support for Amendment 4 among candidates for office is divided down party lines — with Democratic candidates in support and Republicans, including Scott, who’s now running for Senate, opposed.
But it doesn’t have to be a partisan issue. Charles and David Koch — the billionaire brothers famous for throwing big dollars behind Republican candidates — are supporters of felon enfranchisement, and criminal justice reform more broadly. The Koch-backed nonprofit, Freedom Partners, endorsed Amendment 4 in Florida, and an official with the Koch network said the brothers have spent at least seven figures on their criminal justice reform efforts nationwide this year alone.
Mark Holden, a senior vice president at Koch industries, says it doesn’t matter if restoring voting rights boosts one party over the other.
“We don't know who's going to vote for whom and at the end of the day we shouldn't worry about that," Holden told VICE News. "We should try to make sure that people are coming back into society with a chance to succeed and that we're treating them in a way that's humane and that we're not reminding them every single day of their life the worst thing they ever did.”
And Amendment 4 appears to have bipartisan support among Florida voters, too. A September poll found that more than 70 percent of likely voters said they’d back restoring voting rights to felons. That’s far more than the 60 percent threshold the measure needs to pass.
But Manning isn’t taking support like that for granted. She’s been working with a group called Florida Rights Restoration Coalition to advocate for Amendment 4, and has been out knocking doors in her neighborhood for months to get out the word. If it’s successful, Manning still has years to serve on her parole before she’s eligible to vote again. But she said getting that right back would mean more than just being able to check a box on a ballot.
"If I can vote, I can vote for things such as being able to have housing for people getting out of prison. Being able to find jobs. There are so many other things,” Manning said. “To vote is to me the epitome of living in a democracy, or living in a free country.”