December 18, 2018 7:00 am
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Early voting will open in some Florida counties on Oct. 19, 2020, but mail-in ballots are already being returned.

Straight out of the Florida Department of Oh-No-You-Didn’t, Governor-elect Ron DeSantis and other Republican politicians are now claiming they need to “implement” the ballot measure that citizens approved to automatically restore voting rights to felons who have paid their debts to society.

DeSantis and Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, among others, ignore that we already “implemented” this. On Election Day. With nearly 65 percent voter approval for Florida Constitutional Amendment 4.

Welcome to yet another Florida episode of politicians thwarting the voters’ will, just like when state leaders distorted the directives voters gave them to buy conservation land in the 2014 Water and Land Conservation Initiative, the 2016 medical marijuana amendment, and the 2002 amendment to reduce class sizes, among other examples.

DeSantis and Galvano publicly opposed Amendment 4, a historic reform of our state’s embarrassing civil rights restoration process. It’s an Alice-in-Wonderland bureaucratic odyssey which ends in a humiliating moment where supplicants stand in the Capitol begging the fickle Governor and Cabinet members “Please, sir, may I have a vote?”

Florida is only one of four states still holding onto this unseemly scenario, which is as much a vestige of our racist Southern past as a KKK uniform tucked up in the attic. This process started about 150 years ago, with African Americans disproportionally convicted by a racist legal system and robbed of their right to vote as a means to suppress their participation in state affairs and bolster white supremacy.

On Nov. 6, Florida voters rejected this throwback process for felon voting restoration in favor of an automatic one, like most other states employ.  Amendment 4 says: “Voting Restoration Amendment: This amendment restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation. The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the Governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case by case basis.”

It is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 8. But now, the Florida Legislature is pledging to get involved, and DeSantis says he wants legislators to produce a bill next spring. That’s setting up a Titanic Tallahassee Tussle.

When word came out about these new developments last week, various versions of OH HELL, NO! echoed across our sunny state.

“This is non-negotiable,” Florida Democratic House Leader Kionne McGhee said on Twitter last week.

State Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville threw shade, reminding DeSantis that Amendment 4 “was endorsed by 64 percent of the voters, an overwhelming margin much greater than the 49.7 percent by which he won his own election to the governor’s office.”

“As a self-proclaimed ‘constitutionalist,’ Governor-elect DeSantis should know better,” she snapped.

If the Republicans are planning to drag this out until March, it will have some troubling political consequences. By that time, vote-by-mail and early voting for mayoral races in several large municipalities – including Central Florida, Tampa and Jacksonville, will already be happening.

“A delay would be in direct opposition of the will of Florida voters,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida Interim Executive Director Melba Pearson said in a statement. “The only responsibility Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis has right now is to direct state agencies to proceed without delay to register voters consistent with state law, including Amendment 4. He could go the extra step of demonstrating his leadership by encouraging legislators not to impede implementation of Amendment 4 with needless legislation.

Listen: I know most us wish that political battles ended on Election Day, or when a landmark law finally gets passed, but they don’t. Think of the incremental court wins and losses in the civil rights movement, in women’s suffrage, in every battle for reforms which threaten the powers that be. So even when we hold a popular vote, even when we meet that extra-hard threshold of a 60 percent majority needed to pass a Florida Constitutional amendment, we’re not necessarily finished fighting.

To make matters worse, we often end up paying our tax dollars for government lawyers to fight against us. That’s what’s happening in the case of the Water and Land Conservation Initiative, where voters directed that the state spend a portion of the money it already collects on real estate transactions to buy conservation land. That amendment got 75 percent of the vote – more than any candidate on the ballot that year. Yet we’ve been paying for agency lawyers and pricey contracted private firms to fight us in court for years.

The old complaint among Florida’s chattering political class about making amendments to the state Constitution was that the Constitution was a sacred, bedrock document and it shouldn’t be messed with.

That stern muttering was oft-heard back in the days when political norms seemed to make sense in this state, when separation of powers and due process and fair debate were actual goals. In this mercenary landscape of self-dealing narcissists that we now inhabit, things look a lot different when it comes to amending the Florida Constitution.

Constitutional amendment petition drives are happening because a frustrated public needs a way to get around the special-interest stranglehold on our state office-holders. Amending the state Constitution is the only form of direct democracy available to us. And, as we can plainly see, even that doesn’t always work.

The powers-that-be want us to lose confidence in this process. They want us to believe that our vote doesn’t matter, and they want us to lose faith in democracy, because real democracy doesn’t work for them. What works for them? Authoritarianism, oligarchy, racism, fear, doubt, and xenophobia. The only check against that entitled, divisive world view is us.

So now we have to do our hard work as citizens: Stand up for what we believe in and muster the stamina to see it through.

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Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman

Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.