It took 150 years for voters in Florida to do away with a lifetime voting ban on residents with a felony conviction. It took just six months for the state’s Republican-controlled legislature to effectively reinstate the prohibition against voting for most of its newly-enfranchised citizens.
Florida’s House late Friday, by a vote of 67-42, approved a measure denying the right to vote to people with felony convictions who still owe fees and fines outstanding to the court. The bill was approved in the Senate earlier in the week.
The bill, if signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, (R-FL) will prevent tens of thousands of people from exercising the right to vote, seriously compromise the gains won by Amendment 4, which in November restored voting rights for up to 1.5 million people with felony convictions.
Republicans claim the restrictions are vital to “clarify” how Amendment 4 should be implemented. As the New York Times reported, DeSantis had previously “called on the legislature to set additional standards for registering ex-felons to vote.”
Amendment 4 passed last year with nearly 65% of the vote. It was a significant victory for civil rights in Florida which, like the rest of the nation, disproportionately imprisons black Americans.
Prior to Amendment 4, Florida was one of just three states with laws on the books that imposed a lifelong voting ban on individuals with felony convictions. Now, Iowa and Kentucky are the only two states with these bans.
Florida’s felony disenfranchisement laws are a holdover from the Jim Crow era. They were written into the state’s constitution by white lawmakers in 1868 to keep newly freed slaves from gaining political power.
The expansion of voting rights in Florida led to the largest number of people gaining ballot access in the United States to the ballot since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Activists said that progress now appears to be on the verge of unraveling.
“We’re concerned that this could undermine the biggest expansion of voting rights in decades,” Corey Goldstone, media strategist for the Campaign Legal Center, told ThinkProgress.
Goldstone described one woman in Boynton Beach who, due to these restrictions, “is likely going to be ineligible to vote until 2031 because she owes fines and fees, and she makes minimum wage. She badly wants to vote, and is frustrated by how many hoops she has to jump through.”
The new requirements “will have a disparate impact on a group that is disproportionately minority and may lack employment or large incomes, because it ties the criminal justice system and voting rights system to your bank account,” Goldstone said.
Anyone not in a position to, say, just hand $5,000 over to the courts upon their release from prison, is effectively being denied their voting rights. “Your ability to vote is a sacred right and it shouldn’t be tied to your wealth,”
Before the passage of Amendment 4, Florida was home to the greatest number of people who were disenfranchised due to their criminal records. People in the state with felony convictions would face clemency hearings, a subjective process during which a formerly-incarcerated citizen would need to demonstrate sufficient contrition and moral repentance — and still in the vast majority of cases they were denied restoration of their voting rights.
Goldstone said it’s not just the formerly convicted, but society as a whole that benefits when more of its citizens vote.
“It’s easier for somebody to reintegrate into society if they feel that they are a rightful citizen with all the same rights as their neighbors, and continuing to deny them the right to vote just creates distance between these people and their neighbors, and it makes it harder for them to rehabilitate,” he said.
“We know that felony disenfranchisement laws affect recidivism rates. If you are denied the right to vote after getting out, you’re more likely to reoffend.”