Floridians voted in favor of a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights for as many as 1.4 million citizens who had fully completed their felony sentences by a 65-35 landslide last year, but on Friday, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed a new law that will keep the vast majority of those citizens disenfranchised and also effectively bans early voting on many college campuses. Republicans also recently passed another law to stymie similar ballot initiatives in the future that DeSantis has already signed.
To thwart the will of Florida voters, Republicans are imposing a measure straight out of the Jim Crow playbook: poll taxes. This new law would require the payment of all court-ordered restitution as well as any court-related fines or fees before voters can regain their rights.
Florida's felony disenfranchisement system itself is a remnant of Jim Crow: It was given its modern form shortly after the Civil War as part of a series of changes intended to disempower black citizens in a state that was nearly one-half black at the time. Before 2018's ballot initiative passed, the Sentencing Project estimated that one in ten Floridians were disenfranchised, including one in five black voters—five times the rate of those who aren't black.
Imposing a requirement to pay off all court costs is especially draconian because of the predatory ways in which Florida courts and law enforcement derive funding from harsh fines imposed on criminal defendants, above and beyond restitution to crime victims. Indeed, a recent report found that Florida overall levied $1 billion in fines and fees from just October 2017 to September 2018. Even worse, the new law mandates the payment of fines that have been converted into civil liens, meaning that some who have paid all of their criminal penalties still won’t win back the right to vote.
Those who’ve served felony sentences could still regain their rights if a judge converts such debts into community service hours or if the owed party waives it, but one former judge told the Miami Herald that if the hundreds of thousands of affected Floridians apply for such waivers, it would create a massive backlog in the justice system.
By demanding that citizens pay all court fines and fees, Republicans could effectively roll back most of the 2018 amendment. It's unclear just how many people would have had their rights restored by the new amendment, but one analysis estimates Republicans' actions could keep roughly four-fifths of them from voting—keeping up to 1.1 million more people permanently disenfranchised—all because they're too poor to pay court costs. Black defendants in particular are considerably less likely to be able to pay off all their court costs than white defendants, according to one study.
And the public could have a harder time determining the true impact of this disenfranchisement scheme because DeSantis and legislators from both parties also passed another new law that makes the felony conviction status of registered voters private, even though voter registrations are public records. Some voting rights advocates, including the Brennan Center and Desmond Meade, who played a key role in passing the rights restoration amendment, favored this change to protect the privacy of people with felony convictions, but others called it unhelpful since arrest and release records remain public.
Nevertheless, researchers will still be able to match many—but not all—of those records and track some registrations of people with past convictions. However, it could make it harder to have comprehensive demographic data to accurately assess things like the discriminatory impact of the GOP's poll tax, since officials reportedly aren’t required to disclose demographic statistics on the number of people with felony convictions who register to vote if they don't compile them.
As bad as this poll tax is, Florida Republicans didn’t stop there. Last year, Republicans lost a still-ongoing lawsuit that overturned their 2014 ban on early voting sites on college campuses, but they also snuck a little-noticed provision into the poll tax legislation that would effectively reinstate that ban.
The measure in question requires all early voting locations to "provide sufficient nonpermitted parking to accommodate the anticipated amount of voters," which plaintiffs in the early voting case say is specifically targeted at campuses. That's because most schools require permits for parking and often face parking shortages; according to plaintiffs, this new law would preclude "nearly all college and university campuses" from hosting early voting sites.
After the original ban was struck down, some 60,000 voters cast ballots early on college campuses in 2018. Priorities USA, the Democratic super PAC that brought the successful lawsuit against the ban, has vowed to file a new suit to challenge this latest attempt to suppress the vote of students, who typically lean toward the Democratic Party. A separate lawsuit over the poll tax on people with felony convictions is also likely.
Voting rights advocates such as the ACLU, which played a major role in supporting the 2018 rights restoration measure, have condemned the GOP's efforts, and the ACLU almost immediately filed a federal lawsuit to block the poll tax. However, the U.S. Supreme Court's dismal record on voting rights under Chief Justice John Roberts, who gutted the Voting Rights Act, isn't encouraging for the prospects of a federal suit. At the state level, because DeSantis won last year's election for governor—potentially thanks to felony disenfranchisement—by just 32,000 votes out of 8 million cast, he was able to fill several vacancies on the Florida Supreme Court. Republicans now hold a 6-1 majority, making a state court lawsuit unlikely to succeed, too.
Of course, Florida Republicans also took additional steps to undermine democracy by enacting a separated law to limit the ballot initiative process itself in an effort to thwart future voting rights measures from passing. This law imposes restrictions on paying petition-gatherers per signature instead of hourly and will further require the disclosure of a campaign's proportion of out-of-state funding, a figure that would appear on the ballot itself.
Combined, these provisions are intended to undermine the ability of national civil rights groups such as the ACLU to support initiatives like 2018's voting rights amendment. Florida already requires 60% voter approval for an initiative to pass, one of the highest such thresholds in the country, and these additional restrictions will likely make the initiative process prohibitively difficult for many causes.
While direct democracy has its drawbacks, it has nevertheless been a vital tool in fighting back against the Republican voter suppression and gerrymandering. Republican efforts to roll back direct democracy is therefore an effort to undermine representative democracy, too.