A year after Floridians approved an historic amendment restoring voting rights to convicted felons, the state is embroiled in a legal battle that could still bar thousands of would-be voters from the polls next November.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced earlier this month that he would appeal an October federal court ruling rejecting the state’s efforts to require prospective voters to pay all fees and costs incurred as a result of their justice involvement before they can cast a ballot—a requirement that advocates say would continue to keep an estimated 540,000 Floridians disenfranchised.
That’s a hefty percentage of the estimated 1.4 million ex-felons, whom supporters now prefer to call “returning citizens,” otherwise qualified to vote as a result of the November 2018 passage of Amendment 4.
The amendment’s success ended a century-old lifetime ban on voting for anyone convicted of a felony—and has been called by supporters the “largest expansion of democracy” in the U.S. since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Despite the legal tussle, supporters of the measure say it has already significantly shifted the “culture” of the state and laid the groundwork for more significant criminal justice reform.
“This was a ‘road to Damascus’ moment for our state,” Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told a conference of journalists at the University of Florida in Gainesville Friday.
Noting that support for the amendment came from across the political spectrum, Volz predicted it would serve as a tipping point for efforts to fix Florida’s “broken” justice system, ranging from addressing alleged human rights abuses in state prisons to changing the tough sentencing laws that have kept the state significantly behind the curve in nationwide justice reform efforts.
“We believe it (demonstrates) a culture change that can drive justice reform,” he said.
The original amendment listed three exceptions to the restoration of voting rights: individuals convicted of murder or sexual offenses, and those who still owed “restitution” for damages connected with their offenses.
State legislators interpreted the last waiver broadly, to mean any fees and court costs incurred during the justice process. But opponents argued that amounted to a discriminatory and unconstitutional “poll tax” against poor Floridians—most of them African-American—who were saddled with escalating court costs far beyond their ability to pay.
The federal court agreed. In its October decision, it issued an injunction preventing the state from removing 17 individuals from the voter rolls who had already registered since the amendment, but still owed court costs. The individuals had been removed after the legislature passed what it called ”enabling” legislation to define the specific obligations ex-felons would have to meet before voting.
The plaintiffs argued that such “enabling” legislation was unnecessary. But many observers claimed the real reason for the legislation was the Republican-led body’s fear of a surge in new Democratic voters during the presidential elections next fall.
Volz discounted those arguments.
“People (who voted for Amendment 4) didn’t vote for a political party or an ideology,” Volz said, noting that he had campaigned successfully at pro-Trump rallies as well as at NAACP meetings.
“They were voting for a neighbor or a friend to do what was right, based on the fundamental idea that ‘when a debt is paid, it’s paid.’”
DeSantis, who had originally opposed the amendment, insisted it was his opponents who were trying to change the meaning of Amendment 4 by using the court process to “rewrite (its) scope and original intent.”
“The governor understands that protecting the integrity of our elections system is paramount and believes Floridians deserve greater clarification regarding the implementation of Amendment 4,” a spokeswomen for DeSantis said last week.
In the meantime, thousands of Floridians who met all the qualifications have already begun registering to vote.
“A few years ago, people wouldn’t tell anybody if they had a felony conviction,” said Volz. “Now they’re filing to run for office.”
Jim Crow Racism
But behind the skirmishing over Amendment 4 is a much deeper argument over whether Florida can resolve the “Jim Crow” racism that many believe is a stumbling block to wider reforms of its justice system.
Despite its changing demographics, the state has been a redoubt of “tough on crime” attitudes that have fallen most heavily on African-Americans, who make up the majority of the incarcerated population in the state and have made it the country’s third largest prison system.
“We have more prison guards than some states have prisoners,” said Robert Weissert of Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit taxpayers’ organization.
Weissert said the rising costs of Florida’s justice system were one of the key reasons for increasing bipartisan public support for change.
One example, said Weissert, was the burgeoning population of inmates aged 50 or over whose health care needs were increasingly taxing the state’s budget.
His organization was among several from across the ideological spectrum in Florida advocating for conditional release for aging prisoners who no longer posed any threat to public safety.
Weissert and Volz, were among a roster of speakers—including former incarcerees—who spoke at the University of Florida conference in Gainesville on the state’s “Path to Criminal Justice Reform.”
Sen. Keith Perry, a Republican who chairs Florida’s Senate Criminal Justice Committee, conceded that this year’s state legislative session had produced few of the systemic changes advocated by justice reformers.
“The big question,” he said, “is funding.”
Perry said the next 60-day legislative session, which begins in February, would be more productive—particularly in the area of sentencing reform.
The conference, attended by Florida journalists, was organized by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College (publisher of The Crime Report) in partnership with the Charles Koch Foundation.
“For far too long, we’ve let politics trump policy,” Weissert said. “We know the right thing to do. We just can’t do it.”
Stephen Handelman is editor of The Crime Report.