Last updated on April 2, 2021
After a week of having to deal with an openly racist president, it’s nice to have a bit of good news—and from Florida, no less.
In the last election, our backwards state narrowly elected Trump supporter Ron DeSantis as governor, which was slightly balanced out by Florida overwhelmingly approving a constitutional amendment to allow nonviolent ex-felons to have their citizenship restored. It was the largest expansion of voting rights since the suffrage movement in the 1920s.
Florida was one of only two southern states that permanently banned felons from voting, even after they had served their sentence. This ban dates back to post Civil War, where white lawmakers wrote the Black Codes, which were harsh penalties for violations that would be most likely committed by free slaves—such as vagrancy or loitering. This helped ensure that a large percentage of African-American citizens couldn’t vote.
This horrible ban continued for 150 years unabated and affected 10% of Florida’s population, who were disproportionately non-white. Many offenses that kept people from voting were as simple as getting caught driving with a suspended license or using marijuana. In 2018, this ban was finally struck down at the ballot box. Thousands upon thousands of ex-felons registered to vote, which “triggered a panic reaction by Florida Republicans”. Even though the amendment overturning the ban was purposefully written to take effect immediately and without any meddling from politicians, Ron DeSantis and the state GOP brazenly interfered by bringing back the “poll tax”.
The new law, which was signed by DeSantis on the Friday before the deadline, wrote “clarifying language” that forces the formerly imprisoned to pay all fines and fees to the state in order to get their citizenship back. The problem here is that Florida requires notoriously high court financial obligations, which is money that most ex-felons trying to rebuild their lives simply can’t afford. This creates a system where those who were in jail for white collar crimes can likely afford to buy their right to vote, while everyone else cannot. That wasn’t a bug, but a feature of the GOP’s new law.
As a result, new voter registrations had slowed to a trickle. The ACLU filed suit, but that will take a long time to work its way through the courts. The rightwing’s latest voter suppression law seemed to have worked.
But state attorneys from blue districts, understanding the true intention of the new law, decided to get creative and fight back:
State attorneys in at least three Florida counties, covering major cities like Miami and Tampa, are looking into the possibility of modifying the sentences of some indigent people with felony records, potentially by allowing them to do community service rather than pay off often cumbersome court costs.
The Miami-Dade County State Attorney is creating an assembly-line case review system, while the Hillsborough County State Attorney is setting up what he calls a “rocket docket” to modify the sentences “en masse”. In Florida, community service hours can substitute for payment of fees and fines. The prosecutors were adamant that this will not apply to restitution that needs to be paid to victims.
The GOP is always, always thinking of ways to suppress votes. Kudos to the state attorneys fighting back and not waiting for the courts to deliver a solution.
In the meantime, the creators of Amendment 4 have turned their attention to creating a new effort: one that pays off Florida’s fines and fees for ex-felons.
Since launching the effort on [June 28]. nearly 900 people have given a combined $85,000, according to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition’s website. The goal is to raise at least $3 million.
Again, the money will go to fees and fines, not restitution obligations. Even when the fees are just a couple hundred dollars, ex-felons working one or two minimum wage jobs—especially those with children—simply can’t afford it. If the Democrats are serious about winning Florida, this is where the effort needs to be. Rick Scott won his election for the past three times (2X governor, 1X senator) by less then .05 of the vote. So did Ron DeSantis. It makes a lot more sense to contribute to an effort to restore civil rights as opposed to buying expensive television ads. One high profile presidential candidate contributing to this effort might spark a movement of small donations, which would benefit everyone—not just Democrats, but democracy itself.
It’s also another reminder that one party wants to thwart our democracy and suppress votes, while the other is trying to save it. It’s exhausting, but also heartwarming to see good people always stepping up to the fight.
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