Republished with permission from Florida Phoenix, by Barrington Salmon
In November 2018, 64.5 percent of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights to 1.4 million Floridians weighed down by felony convictions but who had completed the terms of their sentences.
However, that hard-earned victory by social justice activist Desmond Meade and groups including the ACLU and the Brennan Center for Justice was short-lived. Why? Because by that summer, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers pulled a bait-and-switch when the Legislature passed a bill, which DeSantis eagerly signed.
The bill, SB 7066, placed one more hurdle before this much maligned constituency, demanding that they pay all their legal obligations, including restitution, court costs, fines, and fees in full before being allowed to vote.
A federal trial court initially ruled the “pay-to-vote” system unconstitutional but U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit—one of the most conservative courts in the country—reversed the lower court’s decision.
In 2023, the problem remains unsolved because Republicans legislators don’t view resolution as a priority and, as has become common, have ignored the will of the 5.1 million Floridians who voted for Amendment 4 in 2018.
Advocates have been fighting to ensure that returning citizens are not permanently disenfranchised, especially with evidence from one of the lawsuits indicating that most with felony convictions had some unpaid fines or fees after completing the other parts of their sentence.
Critics characterize the demand to square the financial payment requirement as a modern day “poll tax.”
Poll taxes were one of several tools once used by segregationists in Southern states to limit African Americans’ voting rights. Targeting potential Black voters and implementing calculated obstacles is favorite tactic, beginning post-Reconstruction and extending through segregation and the Jim Crow era.
Republicans in 2023 are on a campaign to emulate what occurred during Reconstruction by disenfranchising African Americans, engaging in severe gerrymandering so that the odds are turn in their favor in 2024.
Their harsh and uncompromising position on abortion is costing them support and has led to losses in primaries. But the GOP’s political strategy is explained by former President Donald Trump, who has said the quiet part out loud: Republicans will never again win elections if democratic reforms make voting easier.
Voter suppression and subversion exploded in 2013 after the Supreme Court gutted a portion of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). Within days of the ruling, cities and states enacted a wave of voter discrimination laws intended to restrict the rights of people of color, those with disabilities, students, and others most likely to vote Democratic.
North Carolina illustrates the strategy. In 2016, the NAACP and other voting rights groups won a three-year legal battle against the state when federal judges struck down House Bill 589. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit invalidated most of that 2013 law, enacted the day after the Supreme Court’s ruling. The Circuit Court criticized provisions it said deliberately “target[ed] African-Americans with almost surgical precision” using “one of the largest restrictions of the [voting] franchise in modern North Carolina history.”
The circuit judges said lawmakers sought to “impose cures for problems that did not exist.”
The law, dubbed the “Monster Bill,” included a strict ID requirement and an assortment of additional voting restrictions, significantly shortening early voting; eliminating same-day registration; outlawing the counting of out-of-precinct provisional ballots; tossing out a pre-registration program for 16- and 17-year-olds; shuttering one-third of early voting locations; and making it easier to challenge voters.
Republicans nationally say they’ve imposed tough voter-ID measures to prevent what they characterize as widespread voter fraud. But that claim isn’t supported by the facts. A Loyola University Law School study of voting patterns between 2000 and 2014 found only 31 credible instances of voter fraud out of 1 billion votes cast. And a 2015 Brennan Center report found that the challenges are primarily “targeted at voters of color, student voters, and voters with disabilities.”
Furthermore, the Brennan report’s authors found, many states’ laws challenging voters “are susceptible to abuse.” The voter ID and other restrictions now law in almost 24 states have had the desired effort of diminishing African American turnout, the report said.
‘Key Civil Rights Issue’
The disenfranchisement of returning citizens is “one of the key civil rights issues of our time,” said Leah Aden, deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in an CNBC News report.
Despite Republican statements to the contrary, Aden said, in 2006 Congress compiled documents totaling more than 15,000 pages showing that voter suppression still exists across much of the United States. In 2019, 30 states, including Florida, had laws that required ex-offenders to pay at least some of their fines and fees before they could vote.
Meade—president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and architect of the largest expansion of voting rights in 50 years—said in an interview that blocking the amendment is “an obstruction of democracy … and larger than a poll tax. … It is our state actually doing something to block the expansion of democracy, which is a sin.”
The sin, Meade explained, is the state forcing citizens to choose between putting food on their kid’s table and voting or paying rent or voting.
But rather than continuing to wait on politicos, Meade and fellow activists have been raising money to help pay outstanding fines and fees of those entangled in this legal web. Basketball star Michael Jordan, Meade said, donated $500,000 to his organization, and basketball superstar LeBron James through his More Than a Vote project donated $100,000.
Meade received $16 million from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It will help pay the fines and fees of almost 32,000 Black and Hispanic voters in Florida with felony convictions and financial obligations.
Meanwhile, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which organized the Amendment 4 campaign, has used money donated by celebrities and other donors to pay almost $27 million in outstanding court fines and fees for close to 40,000 returning citizens, according to The Hill.
The Phoenix is a nonprofit news site that’s free of advertising and free to readers. We cover state government and politics with a staff of five journalists located at the Florida Press Center in downtown Tallahassee.