In last year’s midterms, voters in Florida overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state constitution that would restore the voting rights of convicted felons who had served their time, including parole and probation. The vote in the sharply divided state wasn’t close – in Florida, constitutional amendments must be approved by 60 percent of the voters, and 64 percent of voters said yes to Amendment 4.
It was a significant result in an election year that was otherwise extremely disappointing for Florida Democrats, who lost high-profile races for Senate and Governor that they were expected to win. Amendment 4 had the potential to re-enfranchise more than a million Floridians who had lost access to the ballot.
However, Republicans in Florida immediately moved to undermine Amendment 4 through legislative action, following in the lead of their colleagues across the country who reacted to electoral defeats by subverting the will of voters in various ways.
In late June, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill – passed along party lines in the state’s GOP-dominated legislature – that would restrict re-enfranchisement to ex-felons who had fully paid off any fines, fees or restitution. The law, which took effect on July 1, effectively shuts out hundreds of thousands of ex-felons, many of whom had already registered to vote after the initial passage of Amendment 4.
Many of those affected by the law are suing in state court. They are aided, among others, by the ACLU, which labeled the Florida law a “poll tax.”
A Checkered History
Florida’s law banning ex-felons from voting is more than 150 years old. Originally passed in the wake of the Civil War, the law was explicitly aimed at preventing African-Americans from voting. To this day a disproportionate percentage of Floridians disenfranchised by the state are black – as of 2016, more than one in five African-Americans in the state were unable to vote because of the law.
Under Republican Governor Rick Scott, who served from 2011-2019, ex-felons hoping to win back their voting rights had to jump through a deliberately inconvenient set of hoops. Scott chaired a commission that met a few times a year in Tallahassee, and disenfranchised voters had to show up in person to ask the commission to reinstate their rights. The process was so inconvenient and arbitrary – the commission could, and did, reject applicants without explaining their decision – the HBO program Last Week Tonight With John Oliver devoted a segment to it.
A state judge in Tallahassee tossed out that system last year, and a group called The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition successfully placed Amendment 4 on the ballot. As noted above, the constitutional amendment passed easily.
A Poll Tax?
The text of Amendment 4 was quite straight-forward, saying that voting rights would be restored to any individual convicted of a felony “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” Those convicted of murder or sexual assault were excluded.
So far as the amendment’s drafters were concerned, the text of the amendment was clear and did not require any legislative action. However, local officials in charge of restoring voting rights requested clarification from the legislature, saying that “completion of all terms of sentence” was unclear.
The Florida legislature clarified the situation by making the process much more onerous for ex-felons looking to restore their voting rights. The bill prohibits convicted felons from re-gaining their voting rights until they pay off all fines, fees and restitution accrued during their time in the criminal justice system. Amendment 4 was estimated to re-enfranchise 1.4 million Floridians – the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition estimated that the law would block hundreds of thousands of them from being able to vote. Put simply, many ex-felons don’t have the money to pay these debts.
The bill does not allow felons to vote while paying down their financial obligations – instead, the individual must completely pay off their debts before being able to vote. Analysts predict the measure will throw chaos into the process of re-enfranchising voters – the state does not currently track restitution obligations, and while the law allows felons to petition a judge to waive their financial obligation, no one is sure how that process will play out on the ground.
Of course, Florida Republicans likely don’t mind the idea of throwing a monkey wrench into the process of re-enfranchising voters.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the forthcoming court fight over Amendment 4. In our preview of the 2018 midterms, American Legal News said the Amendment 4 measure was “one of the most important elections in the country.”
Why? Florida is one of the largest and most closely divided states in the country – the most populous contested state in the nation. A presidential candidate who wins the state’s 29 electoral votes is well-positioned to win the White House.
Recent elections in the state have been incredibly close. The chart below shows the most prominent statewide elections in Florida going back to 2010 and the margin of victory for the eventual winner:
|Election||Margin of Victory|
In a state where elections are routinely decided by less than a hundred thousand votes, an influx of more than a million new voters – a significant number of them African-American – could completely up-end politics in the state. Republicans currently maintain a small but consistent advantage in the state (Democrats won only one of the elections listed above) and have leveraged that advantage into utter dominance of Florida’s government.
From the moment activists placed Amendment 4 on the ballot, Florida Republicans saw it as a serious threat to their power. And instead of working to win the support of the 1.4 million potential new voters Amendment 4 would add to the rolls, Florida Republicans have moved to limit their influence.