'Blatantly unconstitutional': Florida Republicans have a plan to blow up the state's voter-approved civil rights victory
One of the biggest victories for civil rights last year was Florida's passage of Amendment 4, a measure to restore the right to vote for rehabilitated ex-convicts in the state.
The measure, which granted voting rights back to 1.5 million people, or 10 percent of the adult population in the Sunshine State, enjoyed massive bipartisan support, with everyone from the NAACP to the Koch Brothers backing a "second chance" for former offenders. In the end, Amendment 4 passed with 64 percent of the vote, and won a majority in every single congressional, state House, and state Senate district in Florida — and disenfranchised citizens up and down the state rejoiced as they registered to vote for the first time in years.
But now, Republicans in the Florida legislature want to blow up the whole thing.
On Tuesday, along partisan lines, a state House committee advanced a bill that would dramatically scale back Amendment 4 reforms by requiring former offenders pay back all fees and court costs before registering to vote — even extra fees that were not handed down by a judge as part of the original sentence, like surcharges for late payment. The bill would also automatically strip the voting rights of thousands of people who already signed up before these new rules, some of whom have already begun voting in local elections. There is every expectation that GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, who opposed Amendment 4 during his election campaign last year and who wanted to delay voter registration for ex-convicts until the legislature drew up guidelines, will sign the measure if it reaches his desk.
"It's blatantly unconstitutional as a poll tax," said Democratic Rep. Adam Hattersley, comparing the GOP's actions to the Jim Crow-era laws designed to prevent African-Americans from voting.
GOP committee chairman Jamie Grant angrily pushed back, saying, "To suggest that this is a poll tax inherently diminishes the atrocity of what a poll tax actually was."
But the comparison is apt. From 2014-2018, 83 percent of court fines and fees were classified as having "minimal collections expectations" because residents were too poor to pay them — and in virtually every state, these fees overwhelmingly target people of color. If this bill takes effect, hundreds of thousands of people who would have had their voting rights restored will be stuck.
The entire practice of barring ex-felons from voting goes back to the Jim Crow era, with the explicit intent of disenfranchising African-American voters. Prior to Amendment 4 passing, Florida was the largest state to have such a blanket restriction still on the books — former offenders would have to wait five years before submitting a petition to restore their rights, and then it was totally at the mercy of the governor and his clemency board.
An analysis by the Palm Beach Post found that under this system, former Gov. Rick Scott re-enfranchised white offenders at twice the rate of black offenders, and gave clemency to the highest percentage of Republicans, and the lowest percentage of Democrats, since 1971. Scott also fast-tracked political allies, including a man convicted of tax evasion who hosted a fundraiser for the governor, and another man who cast an illegal vote for him while waiting for clemency.
Incredibly, though, what Republicans are now proposing in this bill is in some ways worse than the old system. Even Scott did not require offenders pay back every cent of court fees before applying for clemency — he just made them pay restitution to the victims.
If the GOP gets its way in Florida, the will of the people will be overturned — and democracy will go back from right to privilege.