The Republicans who control Florida’s state government may want you to believe that they were merely doing administrative housekeeping when they defied the wishes of the people and imposed a financial requirement on former felons as a condition for having their voting right restored. In fact, they were extending the era of pervasive racism which has dominated the state for 150 years.
When the 1868 Constitution banned former felons from voting, the reason was never in doubt. At the time, African American voters outnumbered whites 15,434 to 11,148 and the good ole boys would never have handed power to former slaves. Over time, they also came up with ways to send tens of thousands to prison, disenfranchising them. By 2001, the Census Bureau was reporting that one of every 37 African Americans in Florida was in prison, or 48 percent of the total, while being only 15 percent of the population. The number of ex-felons barred from voting reached 1.5 million in recent years, more than 400,000 of them African Americans. The Sentencing Project reported that, nationally, one in two ex-felons barred from voting lives in Florida and more than 20 percent are African Americans, compared with 3.35 percent nationally. Florida ended up being one of only four states in which ex-felons could not vote, the others being Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia.
Up to recently, a path to rights restoration existed but it was an almost impossible journey. Ex-felons had to petition the State Board of Executive Clemency, comprising the governor and Cabinet, in recent years all Republicans, and wait five years after release to be eligible to file a petition. The clemency board met only four times a year, hearing less than 100 petitions at each session. Those who made the cut had 10 minutes to present their cases and the rules gave the governor “the unfettered discretion to deny clemency at any time, for whatever reason.” It was no surprise that, during their eight years each as governor, Jeb Bush and Rick Scott approved only 77,000 and 3,000 petitions, respectively.
The two Republicans had good reason to withhold the vote from fellow Americans. African Americans overwhelmingly support Democrats and, even with the ex felons voter suppression, margins of victory have been razor-thin. Ron DeSantis defeated Andrew Gillum by 0.4 percent of the vote to become governor and Scott squeezed past Bill Nelson by 0.2 percent to become senator. George W. Bush beat Al Gore by 537 votes to capture Florida’s Electoral College votes and win the presidency.
The manipulation of the rules ended abruptly when several activists and civil rights organizations drafted the “Florida Amendment 4, Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative” and got it onto the ballot, where it won 65 percent voter approval last November. The measure was straightforward: “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.”
But Republican legislators would not be deterred. Instead of allowing the amendment to take effect as approved, they passed a law making rights restoration contingent on payment of any court-ordered restitution, fines and fees and DeSantis signed it into law. Within hours, though, amendment supporters filed two lawsuits calling the measure unconstitutional and a poll tax. And Florida has experience with the poll tax, having been the first state, in the 1880s, to require citizens who wanted to vote to pay a fee; the state abolished the tax in 1937.
The blatant usurpation of the people’s will and citizens’ democratic rights is expected to reach the Florida Supreme Court, which, after DeSantis secured the appointment of three judges to make for a conservative majority, will probably side with the Republicans. It could even end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, where, again, a solid conservative majority that includes two justices whom President Donald Trump appointed could be expected to back the ex-felons voting law.
Just recently, the nation’s highest court endorsed partisan gerrymandering, giving rise to the possibility that Republicans would remain entrenched in power in 30 states.
For African Americans, the effort to ignore the wishes of the people as reflected in the ex-felon voter suppression shows that little has changed in terms of voting rights since Florida enacted the Black Codes to continue to keep them in bondage after the abolition of slavery and the enactment of the 1868 Constitution to deny them the vote. It is confounded nonsense that must be ended, in Florida and elsewhere, and African Americans can make it happen. They have the numbers to influence the outcome of elections in several states and change the makeup of legislatures, as well as determine the outcome of Electoral College voting and the presidency itself. But they must register and vote, remembering that the close Republican victories were possible only because tens of thousands stayed home on Election Day, putting DeSantis and Trump in power and leading to this latest assault on democracy.