What is being called a “modern-day poll tax” has found its way to The Sunshine State. Since the 2018 referendum to grant automatic re-enfranchisement to over a million of their citizens with felony convictions, the state legislature has backpedaled and applied questionable restrictions to those seeking to head back to the voting polls this November. Now those who wish to exercise their right can only do so once they have completed their full sentence and paid back all their fines.
Is it fair to require payment in exchange for voting rights?
The United States has a long and complicated history when it comes to granting and protecting its citizens’ right to vote. Expansion of who has the right to vote along with fair voting practices have been achieved through the 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th amendments as well as monumental federal laws such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but millions of Americans still lack the ability to participate in our elections. Those laws set the precedent that voting is no longer a privilege limited to only those of a certain identity, but a right that should be accessible to all American citizens of voting age. Now, the decades-long fight for the re-enfranchisement of, perhaps, the most polarized faction of the country’s population, felons, has taken center stage.
Like many key issues that are facing our democracy, the responsibility of determining the enfranchisement of criminal offenders is left to the states. This leads to a range of inconsistent policies throughout the country. At the time, Florida was just one of nine states that banned convicted felons from voting for life. As more people have spoken up about this injustice, there has been an increase in talk, debate, and voting around the country on whether a change in states’ laws is necessary.
As of 2016, the state of Florida has over 1.6 million residents, over 10% of the state’s population, that are unable to vote due to a felony conviction under Amendment 4 of the state’s Constitution. In November of 2018, Florida held a referendum to challenge Amendment 4 barring convicted felons from participating in the voting process upon completion of their sentences. With nearly 65 percent of the vote, the residents of Florida voted in favor of the change, expanding the right to vote to over a million citizens. This historic vote did include some restrictions as the right to vote will not be returned to those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses. Also, the phrase ‘upon completion of their sentences’ specifically refers to the completion of the prison sentence as well as parole and probation.
Despite the exceptions, the passing of this amendment was a monumental win for those fighting for the voting rights of this overlooked demographic. Before this in 2011, former Florida governor, Rick Scott, implemented a five-year waiting period once released and allowed those who were once convicted to apply for restoration through the Office of Executive Clemency. Even after this long wait, your right to vote was never guaranteed and a backlog of thousands of cases quickly built up. The process of the state choosing who could regain their rights was ruled unconstitutional in February of 2018 by U.S. district judge Mark Walker. In early 2019, the Republican-controlled legislature enacted a law that included the requirement that full enfranchisement would only be granted to those who have paid off all their fines, fees, and restitution. This was immediately seen as a ploy to further limit those who just regained their rights and was labeled a “modern poll tax.” On September 11, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the notion that all fines need to be paid off before felons could be re-enfranchised.
Why is this such a big deal?
Despite only accounting for five percent of the world’s population, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world with 6.1 million American citizens that are not permitted to vote due to their convictions. These citizens will either have their rights reinstated upon completion of their sentence, be able to apply for approval, or accept it’ll never be returned. Universal suffrage is an important pillar of democracy and it should be accessible to all citizens of voting age. Political theorist Robert Dahl has argued the larger proportion of a population that enjoys the right to vote, the more inclusive the regime is. Is a country that fights for the continued disenfranchisement of a sector of their population really as democratic as it portrays itself to be?
The main criticism from those who agree with the most recent ruling is that it’s fair to make these convicted felons completely repay their debt to society. On the surface, this may look like a neutral basis for all those affected to abide by, but this disproportionately affects those of lower-income classes. For most of these offenders, once they have finished serving their time, they must rebuild their lives from the ground up. They will have to find a job and housing in competitive markets where they are often turned away and overlooked. We have all these roadblocks, and more, set in place once these offenders are released that it is often hard for them to build wealth for themselves. Therefore, it may take years for their fines and fees to be repaid without outside assistance. A professor from the University of Florida, Daniel Smith, concluded more than 775,000 people, or about 77% of those with felony convictions, are now ineligible to register to vote because of outstanding financial obligations. The total balance amounting to a billion dollars. Crimes and convictions that occurred early in an individual’s life can affect the way they live until the very end. How long do we expect felons to continue to repay their debt to society once they have served their time? This country has no intention of creating a system that allows former inmates to fully rehabilitate and assimilate back into society as most feel as though they should forever be defined by their worst moments.
The timing of the inclusion of financial obligations is questionable. Just weeks before the voter registration deadline and a presidential election, the enfranchisement of 77% of the felon population of a key swing state was stripped. A swing state in which President Trump won in the 2016 presidential election by a relatively small margin of just 113,000 votes. The final decision on the felon voting was decided by the Eleventh Circuit made of five judges appointed by President Trump and one of which, Barbara Lagoa, a known contender to be nominated by the President to the U.S. Supreme Court refused to recuse herself from the case when asked. What makes this all worse is that the state of Florida is not transparent in regard to informing felons as to how much they owe. Florida does not have a centralized database that keeps track of the necessary payment information as it is handled by the individual counties that are known for not always updating balances. How can you pay back an unknown balance?
Robert Dahl stated a key characteristic of democracy is “the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals.” In this case, the people spoke, and their elected officials spoke over them. We are watching as the inalienable rights of Americans are being blatantly stripped before our eyes when we thought the fight for enfranchisement ended decades ago. We continue to punish rehabilitated felons and remind them of their crimes long after they have repaid their debts to society, and for what?
To win elections.