In November, the majority of Florida citizens voted and approved a measure to restore voting rights back to 1.4 million disenfranchised people who had already served their sentences. The passing of Amendment 4 was a great win for Florida and signaled a change, albeit small, in the state’s politics.
The change that lawmakers, activists and politicians have worked so hard for is close to being undermined because of a bill that Florida Republicans voted to approve. This past week, the Republicans on the Florida House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted to approve a bill that would require felons to pay any outstanding court fees before they can have their voting rights restored.
Many, including Sen. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), have shunned this new bill and referred to it as a poll tax, highlighting the similarity to the laws of the Jim-Crow era that also restricted voting rights for African Americans. Before the passing of Amendment 4, however, we had a Jim-Crow-like scenario: 10 percent of the state’s adults had been barred from voting, including more than 20 percent of African Americans. We have disenfranchised more of our potential voters than any other state, especially black Americans (Florida has a long history of suppressing the votes of black Americans).
At the heart of it all, this “poll tax” screams unconstitutionality and injustice. Amendment 4 clearly states that “any disqualification from voting arising from a felony conviction shall terminate and voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” The legislature made no mention of fines or fees. Introducing court fees after the fact almost makes it look like Florida Republicans don’t want voting rights to be restored. Still, court fees and fines in criminal sentences is a Florida thing as we are known to pile on the fees.
It is also important to note that the state relies on these fees to fund the court system, which is a factor that might raise the cost of fees. Many felons already have a hard time finding jobs after they leave prison and adding the burden of having to pay thousands in court fees doesn’t make their plight any easier. It all just reiterates the notion that the criminal system disenfranchises those that are poor and rewards those that have the means to elude certain aspects of the justice system.
The Republican bill is nothing but a “legislative attempt to undermine the will of the people who voted for second chances and to rid Florida of the last vestiges of its Jim Crow-era past,” as Kirk Bailey of the Florida chapter of ACLU put it. We must stand our ground and not allow years of hard work to go down the drain.
We are a unique state in that our politics affect the whole country, not just our residents. As a swing state, our elections are always eerily close calls– just look at the gubernatorial race between Andrew Gillum and Ron DeSantis– so the introduction of over a million new voters is not only a historic event, but one that could level the playing field.
Florida’s legislature is backed by a Republican-majority and our current governor Ron DeSantis has said that he wants this issue to be “a public debate.” There is no doubt that this bill will be moving forward; however, Florida’s voters mobilized and told us what they wanted when Amendment 4 was passed. Anyone that does political work and activism knows that the battle begins with your first victory. Florida, the work isn’t over, and hopefully, voters will mobilize this season and all seasons to make sure their effort wasn’t in vain.
Kay-Ann Henry is a sophomore majoring in journalism.