Florida Republicans passed a modern-day poll tax. Here's how Democratic state attorneys can fight back
Floridians voted in favor of a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights for as many as 1.4 million citizens who have fully completed their felony sentences by a 65-35 landslide last year, but last month, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new law that may keep the vast majority of those citizens disenfranchised by imposing a modern-day poll tax.
This new law requires the payment of all court-ordered restitution as well as any court-related fines or fees before voters can regain their rights. Florida is notorious for using predatory fines to finance its criminal justice system, and these fees total in the billions of dollars.
While several lawsuits have been filed challenging this poll tax, both federal and state courts are dominated by conservatives and may therefore show little sympathy to plaintiffs. However, an alternative source of power may prove more promising: local prosecutors, who may be able to use their discretion to help mitigate the damage of this poll tax.
State attorneys in Florida are elected in partisan contests in 20 different judicial circuits (as shown in the map at the top of this post), and half a dozen—including some of the most populous—are represented by Democrats. One such Democratic prosecutor, Hillsborough County's Andrew Warren, has said his office is looking into creating a "rocket docket" that would allow judges to speedily waive outstanding fines and fees for those eligible to have their rights restored. Hillsborough is home to Tampa and almost 7% of the state's population. If it proves successful, Warren's proposal could gain popularity in other areas.
In fact, one fellow Democratic prosecutor, Miami-Dade's Katherine Fernandez-Rundle, has announced that her office is working on a related plan. Arguing that prosecutors "should not be an obstacle for a person who has the right to vote," Fernandez-Rundle says her office could work to help those who are unable to pay off fines and fees (although not restitution) by giving them an alternative, such as performing community service.
Both counties are home to more than one million residents each, and altogether, Florida jurisdictions represented by Democratic state attorneys contain roughly 46% of the state's population—nearly 10 million people in all. The GOP's poll tax could negatively affect up to 1.1 million of the 1.4 million citizens who were supposed to regain their voting rights after 2018's ballot measure, but if these Democratic prosecutors take action to alleviate the burden of court fines and fees, they could significantly reduce the impact of this new poll tax.