Last November, Florida restored voting rights to 1.4 million of its citizens when it passed Florida Amendment 4, which ended disenfranchisement of felons who had served their time. In a state that notoriously often decides elections by incredibly thin margins, the move added a huge new variable to the electoral process. Ex-felon disenfranchisement also disproportionately affects black Floridians; in 2016, 17.9 percent of potential black Floridian voters could not vote due to previous felony convictions. That is why a new bill passed by Florida’s legislature to limit enfranchisement from Amendment 4 looks like a new poll tax — and represents democratic erosion for partisan purposes.
The bill would require all Floridians who have served felony sentences to pay “all court fines, fees and restitutions” before they can vote. The fees can also be waived if a victim or the court “forgives” the debt, or if a judge allows the felon to substitute community service for the fees. Opponents of the bill say it would be an undue burden to people who have already paid their debt to society, especially given the financial challenges of re-entering the workforce and having to rebuild one’s life.
The bill has drawn comparisons to poll taxes. These were restrictions that began in the Jim Crow era and required all eligible voters to pay a tax before they could vote. This practice disproportionately affected potential black voters, as poor white voters were exempt from the tax if they had an ancestor who had voted before the Civil War. Poll taxes were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1966.
Supporters of the bill say Jim Crow comparisons are unfair and that sentencing fees should count as part of a felon’s debt to society. Yet this bill flies in the face of the belief in second chances that was at Amendment 4’s core. It punishes poverty in a group that faces severe obstacles to becoming financially stable after re-entering society. And given that 64 percent of Floridians voted to pass Amendment 4, it is clear that the citizens of the state favored enfranchising former felons who had done their time. That is why it is clear there are also partisan motivations behind the restrictive bill. Florida and its 29 electoral votes are a much-coveted toss-up for Democrats and Republicans. The state went for Trump in 2016 after going to Obama in 2012, with both elections being decided by less than two percent of the vote. The new 1.4 million voters created by Amendment 4 is therefore of particular political interest.
Given that the bill restricting Amendment 4 has been summarily supported by Republicans and denounced by Democrats, it is clear who stands to benefit from these voting restrictions. Ex-felon disenfranchisement disproportionately affects black Floridians, who make up 29 percent of registered Democrats in Florida and just 1 percent of registered Republicans. Florida’s House and Senate are both controlled by the Republican party, and Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has indicated he will only support Amendment 4’s implementation with legislation from Florida’s legislature.
This bill is a partisan attack on a competitive democracy, something Ginsburg and Huq point to as a component of democratic erosion in their book How to Save a Constitutional Democracy. They describe voting constraints as a “targeted strategy to demobilize minority voters”1. While the US is still a competitive democracy, they argue that such anti-democratic practices represent a larger trend of political parties manipulating the system to reduce chances of competition. They name this trend “partisan degradation”2. For example, they argue that voter identification requirements currently enforced by many states tend to disadvantage Democrats disproportionately2.
The new Florida bill is an act of partisan degradation. It is overwhelmingly supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats, and would disproportionately affect a bloc of voters that tends to vote Democrat. More importantly, it would take the fundamental right to vote away from a potentially large group of Floridians. Its passage is therefore an act of putting partisan concerns above achieving a fully democratic system.
*Photo, “vote-by-ballot-box”, Creative Commons Zero License.
- Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Z. Huq, How to Save A Constitutional Democracy (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2018), 160
- Ginsburg and Huq, 127