Two years ago, I voted for the first time. I’m from Florida, so I was particularly interested in voting for the ratification of Amendment Four of the state constitution. It called for the restoration of around 1.5 million felon’s voting rights. It passed with around 65 percent voting for its ratification as people were ecstatic to witness the first steps Florida took for the enfranchisement of felons.
Unfortunately, the excitement was short-lived. Recently, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that a Florida law requiring felons to pay their outstanding court fees before registering to vote is constitutional. Since around 774,000 felons in Florida have legal financial obligations, the law is essentially akin to a poll tax. This court ruling led to only 67,000 felons registering to vote in Florida for the upcoming election, which is a far-cry from the supposed 1.5 million. Employing something as archaic as a poll tax is a clear example of an undemocratic practice at the state level. Now, the question arises: How could this have happened? What are the institutional forces at play?
The answers to these questions are the breakdown of norms, President Trump and Ron Desantis co-opting the legislature and courts, and the racialization of political parties.
It is necessary to first highlight the primary defense democracies have against erosion, which are norms . Specifically, the two most important norms are mutual toleration and institutional forbearance . Mutual toleration stresses granting political opponents an equal right to coexist and to compete for power . We may dislike our political rivals, but we still must consider them as legitimate political actors. Institutional forbearance emphasizes self-restraint . It calls for politicians to respect the spirit of the law and not employ potentially dangerous institutional prerogatives .
The United States has clearly seen a breakdown in both mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. Mutual toleration among the two parties is severely limited. Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis regularly demonize Democrats and pose them as a threat to Democracy. This lets them instill undemocratic measures that limits the power of Democrats with the guise that it is for the good of Democracy. Moreover, DeSantis and the Florida legislature calling for a poll tax for felons in Florida is an example of the breakdown of institutional forbearance at play. Since Republicans view Democrats as enemies that need to be defeated by any means, they do not care to use restraint when trying to limit their power. In order to win at any cost, they passed an undemocratic law to keep felons in Florida, who are mostly Democrats, from voting.
It is also crucial to note that the breakdown of norms leads to the attack on institutions . If we think of a democracy as a game, then the degradation of institutions starts with the capturing of referees . Referees include neutral arbiters such as judges and regulatory agencies . By presidents nominating loyalists and politicizing neutral institutions, they can be used as tools to promote undemocratic practices. The consequences of capturing referees is seen in the court ruling which made the poll tax constitutional. Five out of the six judges in the ruling were appointed by President Trump.
Another method of attacking institutions is co-opting the players of the game . This is clearly seen when examining how the law for a poll tax was even passed in the first place. Ron DeSantis, who is a trump loyalist, effectively enlisted the support of the Republican-dominated legislative branch of the Florida government to pass this law.
Once the players and referees are owned by the executive, the rules of the game can be rewritten . The Republican party having control of both the courts and legislature allowed for them to weaken the opposition. This is exactly how and why Amendment Four of the Florida Constitution was effectively curbed. With potentially one million voters no longer able to vote, the Democratic party will have a harder time winning Florida in the presidential election, which is a key battleground state.
The increasing racialization of political parties is also dangerous to democracies. Issues over civic membership in America are deeply grounded by race . It has deeply affected electoral institutions and are fundamental to exclusionary politics. Also, Trump’s nativist policy and racist rhetoric have heightened the party divide on race . With each party becoming more racialized, it reverts party conflict to becoming a tribal conflict . With the increasing “us vs. them” view on political parties, it allows for exclusionary policies to be enforced, such as felony disenfranchisement, which decreases the amount African-American voters .
The interaction between issues of civic membership, the weakening of institutions, and the breakdown of norms are increasing the risk of further democratic erosion in America . The court ruling leading to felony disenfranchisement in Florida is an instance of each of these three forces at play. Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. New York: Broadway Books, 2019  Lieberman, Robert C., Suzanne Mettler, Thomas B. Pepinsky, Kenneth M. Roberts, and Richard Valelly. “The Trump Presidency and American Democracy: A Historical and Comparative Analysis.” Perspectives on Politics 17, no. 02 (2018): 470–79. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1537592718003286.