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.
Hi Miguel! I found your article very interesting, but also very disheartening. It’s upsetting to see polarization villainize party opposition. My roommate who is from Florida was not even sent her ballet that she requested. She had to request it twice and it was never received because it was “lost”. We even called her representative, and they told her that there was really nothing they could do. Regarding the ratification of amendment 4, once again I am disappointed but not surprised. All across the world it seems governments are implementing progressive change alongside loopholes that create major barriers to the positive change’s enforcement. I made a lot of calls for the Biden campaign in Florida, and we had to go through a training session focused on explaining to people who have been convicted of a felony their voting rights. Requiring people to pay their outstanding court fees is unfair and an act of voter suppression. Purposely not informing people of their current voting rights is also an example of further voter suppression.
I agree with the author’s point that issues of civic membership, weakening of institutions, and breakdown of norms are increasing democratic erosion. However, I’d like to further examine how likely it is that these barriers will continue to push people away from the polls and efforts that can be made to prevent democratic erosion through limiting voting access. In the US, getting people to the polls is already a difficult effort. Unlike countries such as Australia and Belgium, which require their citizens to vote, in the US voting is not compulsory. For many people, it is seen as an activity that reflects their civic duty, but one that is not extremely important. In a country where getting people to vote is already difficult, creating further barriers by disenfranchising voters can have a very harmful effect at the polls.
Unfortunately, preventing former felons from voting by insisting that they pay outstanding court fees is just one example of the significant barriers to voting that many states, especially those that are Republican-led, are putting up. For many voters, there are just too many difficulties when it comes to voting. The lines are too long, their polling stations are too far, and they can’t take time off to go vote. Republicans have recognized that it doesn’t take much to push people even further from the polls, and have enacted restrictive voter ID laws, limited early voting, and closed down polling stations to make it even more difficult to vote. Additionally, there is a lot of harm that comes with voter disenfranchisement. The extent to which polarization has affected democracy is alarming and dangerous in that it threatens the very foundation of our nation. That all people are created equal and have equal rights.
However, not all hope is lost when it comes to protecting the right to vote. There are several steps that can be taken by those who believe in protecting voter rights to ensure that everyone has a fair and equal chance to vote. For one, the government can elect to make Election Day a national holiday. Alternatively, the government could choose to move Election Day to a weekend, when most people are off from work and school and could vote with more ease. Third, even if the government is unable to achieve this because of the extreme polarization present at the legislative level, individual businesses and large companies could be encouraged to give their employees time off, either before or on Election Day, so that they may vote without being penalized in the form of lost wages or risking their job security. These are idealistic solutions to the problems faced by voters in the US today. Specifically, in Florida there are organizations that partner felons with attorneys to help them work through their cases and gain their right to vote back.
Although voter disenfranchisement is a dangerous movement towards eroding democracy, an important step that can be taken to prevent this is by protesting and by suing. Many voters’ rights groups across the US, and in Florida, have made efforts to prevent these laws from going into power. Recently, a federal judge ruled that parts of the voting law passed by the Florida government last year is unconstitutional1. The judge went a step further by ruling that for the next 10 years the legislature cannot pass any voting laws involving “ ‘line warming’ activities’, third party voter registration, and drop boxes” without receiving prior approval from the court.
The author discusses how the breakdown of norms in the country has contributed to the erosion of democracy. I believe that there are several efforts that can be made to reverse this effect. Firstly, creating an independent commission that reviews voting laws to ensure that partisan ideologies are not harming the right to vote. Another big threat to voting is partisan gerrymandering. Partisan gerrymandering is when the congressional boundary lines are drawn in such a way that one party’s vote gains greater importance than the other party’s vote. In many states, including Florida, this has been an especially racialized process, with Republicans recently approving a new congressional map that diminishes the vote of the state’s Black citizens2. Just as with the voting laws, these gerrymandered congressional maps can be stopped if an independent, non-partisan commission is created with the goal of making congressional maps that are free from gerrymandering and fairly represent the people.
Even though there are movements being made towards restricting the right to vote for felons and many others, including racial minorities and those who are low-income, there are solutions in reach. Challenging unfair and restrictive laws in court, creating greater access to voting by giving paid time off and having a longer early voting period, and making non-partisan commissions responsible for creating congressional maps.
 Mower, L., & Ellenbogen, R. (2022, March 31). Federal Judge rules some of Florida’s new voting laws are unconstitutional. Miami Herald. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://www.miamiherald.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article259980580.html
 Epstein, R. J. (2022, April 20). Florida Senate Passes Congressional Map Giving G.O.P. a Big Edge. The New York Times. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/20/us/politics/florida-redistricting-maps-desantis.html