The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A new poll tax will suppress Florida’s voting reform

Desmond Meade is hugged by a friend inside the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office in Florida after registering to vote. Ex-felons regained their voting rights in the state Jan. 8. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/For The Washington Post)

One of the most inspiring victories of the 2018 elections was in Florida, where voters approved a constitutional amendment that reenfranchised an estimated 1.4 million people with felony convictions. In a state where gubernatorial and Senate races were decided by fractions of a percentage point, a transpartisan coalition propelled Amendment 4 to a landslide victory with 65 percent of the vote. It was an unexpectedly decisive outcome that showed how some issues really do cross partisan politics — and a powerful example of democracy working as it should.

It should surprise no one, then, that Florida Republicans are determined to thwart the will of the people.

This month, the Florida legislature passed along partisan lines a bill that requires former felons to clear new financial hurdles before they become eligible to vote. Amendment 4 plainly stated that most people with felony convictions would regain their rights upon completing “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation,” but under the Republican legislation, they will also be obligated to pay related fines, fees and restitution. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who campaigned against Amendment 4 last year, plans to sign the bill in the coming days.

For many of those affected, the new law will impose a financial burden that is impossible to meet. As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern explains, “Florida is a pioneer of ‘cash-register justice,’ charging defendants ‘user fees’ to finance its criminal justice system and saddling them with massive fines upon conviction.” The state charges people with felony convictions for everything from the court costs to medical care in prison to drug testing upon their release. In some cases, the charges add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, Stern writes, putting many “in a crippling financial hole from which few ever escape.”

Because of these excessive financial obligations, the primary effect of the Republican legislation will be to ensure that large numbers of former felons remain permanently disenfranchised. “This bill will undoubtedly impact the most vulnerable communities in Florida and has created a barrier to voting that is unconstitutional,” said ACLU of Florida Executive Director Micah Kubic. “Restricting the right to vote based upon who can afford to pay for it is a blatant attack on our rights.”

The new requirements will also have a disproportionate impact on black Floridians, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. For that reason, 2018 gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum (D) and others have likened the measure to the poll taxes that were used to disenfranchise black Americans under Jim Crow. “Governor DeSantis is not only ignoring the will of Floridians, he’s instituting a racist modern-day poll tax,” said Tory Gavito, president and co-founder of the progressive group Way to Win. “It’s all part of his and Republicans’ broader strategy to keep people of color and others who have been disproportionately targeted by our broken criminal justice system from exercising their right to vote.”

Indeed, the Republican Party’s broader voter suppression strategy is shaping up to be a major factor in the 2020 elections. After six states enacted new voter restrictions in 2018, Arizona and Tennessee have already followed suit this year. In Texas, which, like Arizona, is trending toward Democrats, the Republican-controlled state senate recently advanced a bill that could make even small errors on voter registration forms punishable with jail time. As 2020 draws closer, it is extremely likely that Republicans will continue introducing similar measures that make it harder for people to cast ballots.

Upholding the fundamental right to vote should not be a matter of left vs. right. As civil rights leader Rev. William J. Barber II has said, “Subverting democracy is not partisan. It is immoral. It’s just plain wrong.” Yet as long as Republicans’ electoral fortunes depend on their ability to keep voter turnout low, the job will fall to progressives, who are increasingly focused on protecting and expanding the franchise.

For example, House Democrats’ democracy reform legislation, the For the People Act, would promote voting rights by creating an automatic voter registration system and making Election Day a federal holiday. Gillum has created a new group, Bring It Home Florida, to organize and register voters in the Sunshine State.

After losing a contentious Georgia governor’s race that was tainted by voter suppression, Stacey Abrams (D) launched Fair Fight Action to advocate for voting rights and election reform. And in what some have described as a “new suffrage movement,” many activist groups are now fighting to end felony disenfranchisement, which affects more than 6 million people.

The Republican Party has shown that it will go to extreme lengths to keep people from exercising their rights. The key for progressives — and for all Americans who believe the right to vote is a democratic right — is not only to fight back but also to force the issue into the national conversation and demand accountability. As Abrams recently told a crowd in San Francisco, “I need you all to talk about voter suppression all the time. We need to talk about voter suppression the way we talk about the Kardashians.”

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Republicans are anti-voting and anti-democratic

Paul Waldman: Republicans boldly explore new frontiers of voter suppression

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Trump promised restraint but has delivered more calamitous intervention

Jennifer Rubin: Stacey Abrams gives a graduate school class on voter suppression

Karen Tumulty: Where the hunt for voter fraud is worse than the crime itself