Last November, 64.6 percent of Florida voters voted in favor of Amendment 4, which restores voting rights for felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation,” excluding those “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense,” although the point at which felons have completely served their sentences, as well as other specifics of the language, is now in contention. While advocates argued that the Amendment should have been implemented without legislation immediately after being approved by voters, governor Ron DeSantis argued that the amendment must have “implementing language” through a bill passed by the state legislature, delaying the passage of such a bill from January to March, when the state legislature’s session began this year.
As the implementing bill has moved forward, stricter provisions have been added. While the Senate Judiciary Committee eliminated the charge of attempted murder and defined a felony sexual offense as one that requires “registration as a sexual offender,” the House version included a much larger number of sex-related crimes, including prostitution, affecting a broader range of felons. Furthermore, while the Senate eliminated “fees and fines that have been converted to civil liens” from the barriers to felon voting, the House has retained them. Both versions from the House and Senate require “require full payment of restitution, including restitution that has been converted to a civil judgment”. Amendment 4 advocates are most opposed to the requirement that felons must repay all restitution before being able to regain the right to vote, calling it a modern poll tax.
The question is whether the Republican obstacles to full and timely implementation of Amendment 4 as originally intended constitutes as an example of democratic erosion. One of Bermeo’s modern forms of democratic backsliding is strategic election manipulation, which includes “hampering voter registration” in such a way that a particular group benefits from it . The issue is that one cannot accuse Floridian Republicans of refusing to carry out the will of electorate without evidence of intent to obstruct the opposition’s voter base in order to maintain power. Despite the “studies [that] have shown disenfranchisement tends to take more votes from Democratic candidates,” executive director of The Sentencing Project, a sentencing reform group, Marc Mauer says “people speculate about the party affiliations [of the felons who will have their voting rights restored], but it’s not such a simple thing to gauge,” as he believes is evident in that voter support for the amendment was bipartisan.
The same source adds that “a third of the 1.4 million people affected are African-American…the largest percentage of disenfranchised felons is white,” although this number is deceptive in that it doesn’t take into account the smaller African-American population in Florida; in terms of proportion, the African-American portion of the felons expected to receive voting rights make up 20 percent of the entire African-American population in Florida.
The resistance to the implementation of Amendment 4 is entirely legal and in itself has no inherent implication of intent to obstruct; even Republican Senator Jeff Brandes asserts that “this language needs to be clarified,” despite being a self-proclaimed supporter of the amendment. However, opposition to the amendment before its passage by major republican figures like Governor DeSantis and President Bill Galvano, as well as the fact that the Senate Judiciary Committee’s proposal was approved in a party-line vote, make it clear that a significant portion of Florida Republicans are not only opposed to the amendment as being self-implicating or due to its language, but to the amendment itself.
Furthermore, evidence of support of the amendment by Republican voters does not equate to evidence of the innocence of Republican lawmakers in seeking to restrict the scope of the amendment; if anything, the disjunction between the clear bipartisan support from voters and the reluctance to implement the amendment by lawmakers further suggests that the democracy of Florida has eroded to some extent. Not only is the Republican Party, through what Ginsburg and Huq call ‘partisan degradation,’ placing its “partisan interests above the interest in the regular and stable functioning of the federal [or, in this case, state] government,” but also above the expressed interest of the Floridian electorate .
While it cannot be proven that the felons will vote Democrat or that the Republicans seek to obstruct the full intent of the amendment in order to reduce Democrat votes, their clear opposition to quick and complete implementation, and more specifically very unnecessary added measures like full restitution payment (with which even the Republican supporter Brandes disagrees), make it evident that Florida Republicans do not wish to carry out the will of the people, regardless of intent. This alone is evidence enough that democracy in Florida has certainly eroded to some extent due to unilateral partisan degradation.
- Nancy Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27, Number 1 (January 2016): 13
- Ginsburg, Tom and Aziz Z. Huq, How to Save a Constitutional Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 2018), 126