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Liberals and conservatives try energizing voters with Florida’s abortion amendment

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to supporters about the implementation of Florida's abortion ban at an event Wednesday, May 1, 2024, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
John Raoux/AP
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to supporters about the implementation of Florida's abortion ban at an event Wednesday, May 1, 2024, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

On the day that Florida's six-week ban on abortion went into effect, Vice President Kamala Harris gave a speech on reproductive rights in Jacksonville — a city that narrowly elected a Democratic mayor last year, Donna Deegan, after the state had crushed Democrats in the 2022 election.

“Starting this morning, women in Florida became subject to an abortion ban so extreme it applies before many women even know they are pregnant,” Harris said.

Harris made the speech to do more than highlight the challenges of Florida’s new abortion ban. She's part of an effort to drum up support not only for Democrats like herself and President Joe Biden, running for reelection, but also to get Amendment 4 passed on the ballot this year in Florida.

If passed, would protect abortion rights in the state constitution through fetal viability — when a fetus could survive outside of a woman. Typically that means no more than 24 weeks of pregnancy.

For this measure to pass, at least 60% of voters across the political spectrum must vote yes. Now, supporters are trying to energize the yes votes, while opponents are working to weaken their support.

Professor Sean Foreman who chairs the Department of History and Political Science at Barry University in Miami Shores is studying their work closely as an expert on elections in Florida. It’s weighing on him that voters don’t seem to share his enthusiasm for casting a ballot this year.

“So many of the voters I talk to out there, whether they're students or not, no matter what age, are just not really excited about the election,” Foreman said.

Democrats hope that Amendment 4 will fire up those voters with lackluster enthusiasm about the election, especially after Florida’s six-week ban on abortion went into effect on May 1.

READ MORE: Abortion-rights groups in Florida want voters to reverse bans

Florida voters, though, might not deliver the volume of votes for President Joe Biden and other democrats on the ballot that the party hopes for.

“You might get more independent and moderate voters voting for the amendment, but that doesn't guarantee they're going to vote for Democrats,” said Foreman, pointing to the 2008 general election when Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that defined marriage as a union of a man and a woman. In that same election, they picked the Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama.

What’s more, abortion itself may not draw enough voters out.

In 2022, Charlie Crist ran as the Democratic candidate against Ron DeSantis in the gubernatorial race. He ran heavily on abortion access, putting his stance in support of reproductive rights in commercials, on social media and in campaign event speeches as he tried to court liberal and Democratic voters.

He still lost big time in the state of Florida and even in Miami-Dade County,” Foreman said.

Florida’s most populous county went for Ron DeSantis, breaking a 20-year run for Democrats in Miami-Dade.

In recent years, Florida has gone from a swing state to a red state. The state has 5.2 million registered Republican voters and almost 900,000 fewer registered Democrats, according to the Florida Division of Elections.

Democrats versus Republicans

The national Democratic Party is investing time and money into Florida ahead of November. Biden visited Tampa in April and Vice President Kamala Harris came to Jacksonville earlier this month, on the day the six-week ban went into effect.

In her speech, Harris blamed Donald Trump for strict abortion bans like Florida’s. Trump appointed Supreme Court justices who formed the majority necessary to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which gave the people the right to decide whether to continue a pregnancy. States could ban most abortions after viability.

In 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court ended this federally protected right with the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, allowing states to limit or outlaw the procedure.

At the end of her speech, she asked the energized crowd: “Florida, are you ready to make your voices heard?”, alluding to this year’s ballot in the state.

To get Amendment 4 on the ballot in Florida, a statewide campaign called Floridians Protecting Freedom had to gather 891,523 signed petition forms from registered voters all over the state, according to state rules. The campaign gathered more than 1 million signatures from people across the political spectrum.

Meanwhile, conservatives who want to keep abortion restrictions in place are motivating voters against the amendment, says Barry University's Sean Foreman.

Jayden D'Onofrio passes out Plan B, condoms and rolling papers to educate young voters at Florida Atlantic University on Thursday, April 11 in Boca Raton, Fla. Abortion and marijuana will be on Florida's November ballot, and these issues are critical issues for young voters.
Cody Jackson
Jayden D'Onofrio passes out Plan B, condoms and rolling papers to educate young voters at Florida Atlantic University on Thursday, April 11 in Boca Raton, Fla. Abortion and marijuana will be on Florida's November ballot, and these issues are critical issues for young voters.

“You're going to hear from DeSantis and other Republicans about how they think this amendment is dangerous," he said. "They may even campaign on some misinformation about what the amendment would do.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke about Amendment 4 during a press conference on April 30, the day before the ban went into effect.

“People will sometimes say, ‘Yeah, you know I’m pro-life, I believe that, but let the doctor make the decision’”, Desantis said. “That amendment does not require a physician. You can have an abortion up until the moment of birth without a physician being involved.”

DeSantis said Amendment 4 wouldn’t require a physician to provide an abortion, referring to the wording of the ballot item.

It reads: "No law shall prohibit, penalize, delay, or restrict abortion before viability or when necessary to protect the patient’s health, as determined by the patient’s healthcare provider. This amendment does not change the Legislature's constitutional authority to require notification to a parent or guardian before a minor has an abortion."

Despite the words “healthcare provider”, Florida law does limit abortion providers to licensed physicians.

Dr. Cecilia Grande, a gynecology specialist in Miami-Dade County, takes issue with the claim that abortions can be performed up until full term. Grande is a member of the Reproductive Freedom Taskforce, a group under the Committee to Protect Health Care, a national advocacy group.

“If somebody comes and they are eight months, we don’t do anything,” Grande said. “If that patient wants to have a termination, she can't. She could have a baby and give it up for adoption, but nobody is going to terminate a pregnancy at that gestational age. I've been doing this 30 years, and never have I ever seen a case where a pregnancy was terminated after 23 weeks.”

Explaining to voters

Now organizers are starting a push to explain the amendment to voters, focusing on those who would benefit most from its success.

“The lowest income communities are the ones that aren't going to be able to afford to travel to New York, or travel someplace else to get the medical care that they need,” said Andrea Cristina Mercado, executive director of Florida Rising, an independent political group that has begun phone banking and knocking on doors.

Her colleague, Sebastian Caicedo, who’s Florida Rising’s Miami-Dade County regional director, spoke to voters in North Miami on a recent Saturday afternoon. He allowed WLRN to shadow him.

One woman who spoke mostly Haitian Creole said, with the help of her son as a translator, that she doesn’t feel it’s her role to stop a woman from deciding to have an abortion and would support Amendment 4. Another voter acknowledged feeling conflicted about abortion. He didn’t think women should have the procedure but also didn’t feel he could interfere in a woman’s choice.

“When November comes, and you show up to that ballot, it’s going to be a yes or no,” Caicedo said. “We have to make a decision because that’s the only way we can change laws.”

This man said he did not vote in the last election. Organizers like Caicedo will be working to get people like him out to vote.

Dr. Cecilia Grande has been doing the same, from her office, asking patients if they’re registered.

“Please vote. Please vote. Please tell your friends to vote,” Grande said. “This is a human tragedy. The state is making women have babies. They have to carry a pregnancy that can kill them.” Grande herself doesn’t perform abortions because of her Catholic faith, but she wants all of her patients and fellow doctors to have a choice.

Copyright 2024 WLRN 91.3 FM

Verónica Zaragovia was born in Cali, Colombia, and grew up in South Florida. She’s been a lifelong WLRN listener and is proud to cover health care for the station. Verónica has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master's degree in journalism. For many years, Veronica lived out of a suitcase (or two) in New York City, Tel Aviv, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, D.C., San Antonio and Austin, where she worked as the statehouse and health care reporter with NPR member station KUT.