Threats to our voting rights come from outside and within Florida
As the 2020 presidential election approaches, our state faces numerous challenges to a free and fair voting process. Some challenges may come from outside our country; we know of attempts by Russian operatives to hack election systems in at least two Florida counties in 2016, and we can expect more such actions.
But when it comes to voter suppression, the deliberate denial to access the ballot box for Floridians, the threats come from our own political leaders.
One such threat, which denies hundreds of thousands of otherwise eligible Florida voters the right to vote, is SB 7066, passed by the Florida Legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
In November, 64.55 percent of Florida voters supported Amendment 4, which returned the right to vote to all citizens convicted of felonies who completed their prison sentences and probations — excluding those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses. Democrats, Republicans and independents cast ballots in support of Amendment 4. The voters’ will was clear, and as many 1.4 million Floridians stood to benefit.
Six months later, members of the Legislature severely limited the number of citizens who would reclaim the right to vote through Amendment 4 and ruled all outstanding fees and fines resulting from their prosecution be paid before these Floridians could cast their ballots. No such language was contained in the amendment; Floridians did not vote for a poll tax. The lawmakers imposed their own will over the will of Florida’s electorate.
In other words, the Legislature and governor overruled one set of voters to deny another set of voters rights — a compound offense against the very core of our democracy.
SB 7066 also deliberately discriminates on the basis of race. Before Amendment 4’s passage, more than 20 percent of Florida’s African American voting-age population could not vote due to previous convictions. Although Black people comprised only 16 percent of Florida’s population in 2016, they made up nearly 33 percent of all who were prohibited from voting by Florida’s previous Jim Crow-era voting laws.
A key reason for these troubling figures: racism within the criminal justice system. Black people are statistically much more likely to be stopped, arrested and convicted than white Floridians.
Before the Legislature and governor crippled Amendment 4, it started to improve voter registration numbers. More than 2,000 formerly incarcerated Floridians registered between January and March, about 44 percent of whom were Black people. But the new pay-to-vote rules created by Florida’s Legislature and governor blocks many more from registering.
These 2,000 initial registrants had average annual incomes $14,000 below the average Florida voter. Such individuals are much less able to pay the arbitrary, onerous fees imposed by the legal system. Most of those court fees were established by the Florida Legislature itself over the past 25 years — including a fee to apply for a public defender and partial payment for your own prosecution
Such fees often amount to hundreds or thousands of dollars, and fewer than 20 percent are ever collected, making SB 7066 a surefire way to deny large numbers of people the right to vote.
Clearly, curtailing voting, especially by people of color, was the Florida Legislature and governor’s intent of the law all along. When members of the Black Caucus inquired about the racial impact of SB 7066, the chief House sponsor of the measure replied, “I have intentionally not looked at the numbers.” But refusing to look at who might be impacted by the law doesn’t magically erase the harm the law will do. It does nothing to repair the unconstitutional discrimination SB 7066 creates.
Presently, we know that four out of five Floridians with past felony convictions living in 48 Florida counties will not be eligible to vote under SB 7066. In one southwest Florida county alone, state and county records contain at least 4,500 individuals who should benefit from Amendment 4. Shockingly, an analysis revealed that 86 percent still owe “legal financial obligations” and cannot vote under SB 7066’s restrictions. These facts — the ones the chief sponsor of SB 7066 in the House refused to recognize — do matter.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, with our partners, is challenging SB 7066 in the courts, but it is not the only critical impediment to voting in Florida.
Florida counties need to expand early voting days and hours. Our state also fails to allow citizens to register and vote on Election Day. Additionally, they cannot register to vote when they register their vehicles or apply for driver’s licenses. Many other states have adopted voter-friendly measures and increased citizen participation in elections. Not Florida.
Instead, Florida’s politicians crafted an electoral system where as few people as possible make decisions. In doing so, they usurp the civil rights of many and destabilize the democracy that belongs to all of us.
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