Andrea Cristina Mercado on Florida’s pro-abortion amendment campaign

Andrea Mercado Florida Rising

Andrea Cristina Mercado is executive director of Florida Rising, one of the groups spearheading the ballot initiative to enshrine abortion rights in the state's constitution this November. (Photo: Florida Rising)

The first of April was a momentous day in the battle for reproductive rights in Florida. In a 6-1 decision, the state’s all-Republican state Supreme Court upheld a restrictive law that bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, before many women know they’re pregnant. But on the same day, the court, in a 4-3 ruling, also approved an amendment to appear on the ballot this November that would enshrine abortion rights in the state’s constitution. Andrea Cristina Mercado is a long-time organizer in Florida and the executive director of Florida Rising, one of the groups spearheading the pro-amendment campaign. Chris Kromm, publisher of Facing South and executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, spoke with Andrea about the coalition’s organizing efforts and what a victory could mean for Florida and beyond. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Your group, Florida Rising, is an anchor of the pro-amendment coalition, Floridians Protecting Freedom. How did the idea for this amendment and the campaign come together?

We're one of six organizations on the executive committee of the ballot initiative. The other groups are Planned Parenthood, ACLU of Florida, SEIU 1199, the Florida Women's Freedom Coalition, and Women’s Voices of Southwest Florida. Over the past several years, there's been a concerted attack on our self-determination and our ability to make decisions. Time and time again, ballot initiatives have been a vehicle to win necessary reforms. 

It's a scary undertaking, because we’re in the third-largest state in the country, with 23 million people. It can be extremely expensive [to run an amendment campaign]. But in the wake of the 2022 elections and everything that's been happening in the state, we needed something to put our energy behind to make proactive change. This initiative was the right thing at the right time. 

We started to collect petitions [to put the amendment on the ballot] and saw an extraordinary amount of momentum and energy. Over 2,400 people collected petitions. Hundreds of organizations were involved in the effort. We helped host community hubs at eight of our offices across the state so people could pick up petitions and drop off petitions. Eighty percent of the funding for that phase came from in-state donors, which was really remarkable.

Florida Rising has been organizing in the state for many years, and you’ve learned some lessons about what it takes to move the needle in a politically challenging and volatile climate. What organizing strategies do you think will be key to winning in November?

The diversity of our state means that you have to be willing to build out infrastructure, and be really creative about how you reach different kinds of communities — from rural communities in the panhandle to the diversity of the Black immigrant community and the diversity of Latino immigrant communities. One of the things that we’ve learned is that ballot initiatives have the potential to energize and inspire people, and you have to create ways for people to get involved and have meaningful participation in the campaign. At the Supreme Court when they were hearing the arguments on whether or not to put this on the ballot, we were out there with signs, but we also had signs in Spanish. We launched our website in Spanish. That matters. From an early date, making sure that the campaign is speaking to the diversity of our communities has been really critical.

I was thinking about Kansas and Kentucky. They don't have the same diversity, but when abortion amendments were on the ballot in 2022, they brought out infrequent voters, especially women, in support of reproductive freedom. Do you think this campaign has the potential to mobilize new voters in the same way? 

This is a year where some people aren't really excited about turning out and voting. It's not which political party they're voting for; it's whether they're going to go and vote at all. The fact that we have abortion access and legalization of marijuana as ballot initiatives in the state of Florida is an incredible opportunity to talk to voters, to connect easily with them about why voting makes a difference and their ability to participate in direct democracy. Not electing someone who says that they will do a thing; you literally get to go to the polls and say yes or no on an issue. There’s the opportunity to turn out people who otherwise wouldn’t vote.

Amendments need 60% of the vote to pass in Florida, which is a high bar. What gives you hope that the amendment campaign will succeed?

I don't think you could do organizing work without being a bit of an optimist and believe that change is possible. There is a lot of grit and determination, putting in the work day in and day out to register people to vote, talk to people about why voting is important, and help people connect the dots between policies and their everyday lives. I see it every day, people who volunteer for the first time not just to sign a petition, but to get their friends and family to sign one. People like my mom, who made a donation for the first time. So I draw a lot of hope from the people around me and people that I see taking action to advance democracy in a time where so many of our basic freedoms are under real attack.

We've talked about the potential for this campaign to bring in [progressive-leaning voters] who haven't been involved in the political system, maybe haven't voted in a while. Given the 60% threshold, you'll also need some people who are on the other side, DeSantis and Trump voters, to vote yes. What's the campaign's message to those voters? 

One message is just the reality of the extreme ban going into effect with virtually no exceptions at six weeks, before many people know that they're pregnant. That's a radical departure from where we've been in the state. And we hear the stories in other states: a little girl who was raised in Ohio and had to leave the state to go to Indiana to have an abortion. It is personal stories that help people connect. 

And ultimately, personal decisions should be made between somebody and their medical provider. Government shouldn't be interfering in these basic freedoms. We believe that's a message that resonates with people regardless of who they're voting for for president. The polling is certainly showing that that's the case.

In 2018, tens of millions of dollars came into Florida to help pass that year’s Amendment Four, the voting rights restoration amendment, which won with 65% of the vote. I know that developing resources within the state will always be a priority, but I'm sure you also welcome the support of national donors and allies. Do you see them stepping up to support the abortion rights amendment fight? 

Yes, they're there. There have been some national donors that have been with us since the very beginning. But then, since the [state supreme court] decisions on April 1, there has been an influx of support — both from small-dollar donors, over 2,000 online donations, and major institutions, which is really exciting to see. Because it will be an expensive initiative for us to reach millions of people — making sure that they're hearing our message and our framing, and not disinformation or lies from the other side.

Your message is targeted at the Florida voters that you're aiming to mobilize and persuade to pass the amendment. But given the anti-abortion measures spreading throughout the South and country, what happens in Florida will resonate beyond the state's borders. What is the importance of this fight for the South and the country overall?

It's a great question. We have 82,000 procedures a year here in Florida. This initiative will have the most impact on abortion access in the nation this year. It's also really important to note that Florida has been one of the only states in the Southeast where people have access to abortion care. That's about to radically change. But we have the ability in November to make it a right, to make it a part of our Constitution. 

What happens here in Florida quickly gets mainstreamed in the rest of the country — extreme attacks on our ability to protest, teach Black history in schools, the anti-LGBTQ hate. It's our belief that they're just going too far. They're counting on people not having time to be involved in elections. It's our responsibility to make sure we're having the conversations and agitating people to participate.

Any final thoughts?

We welcome people from all walks of life to be a part of this campaign. There will be so many opportunities to knock doors, to talk to people. If you know someone who lives in Florida, you should talk to them about this campaign. And you can donate from anywhere in the country. I have so much gratitude for the way people have been showing up. I often tell our staff, there's so many people out there who want to be a part of something, and it's on us to make the invitation.