There will still be a trial in the spring, and we don’t know the ultimate fate of this law. But the mere fact that it was passed shows the lengths to which Republicans will go to prevent people, especially people of color, from voting.
Felon disenfranchisement laws have their roots in post-Civil War efforts to ensure that black people would be unable to amass any meaningful political power. The state could pass a law removing voting rights from anyone convicted of a felony, then arrest and imprison as many black people as possible.
Nowhere did it operate on the scale of Florida, where by most estimates nearly a million and a half people who had served their sentences were prevented from voting.
In 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative amending the state constitution to allow those who had completed their sentences, including parole and probation, to register to vote. Though just under 65 percent of the electorate had voted for the initiative, the Republicans who controlled the state government could not abide it. So they passed a law stating that ex-felons could not vote until they had paid every penny of any fine or fee they had accrued as part of their sentence, knowing that it would mean thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands would be unable to vote.
The three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled that by requiring people to pay before being able to vote, the Florida law clearly violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. “Two hypothetical felons here have committed the same crime, with identical culpability, yet one is deemed more qualified to vote based on ability to pay,” they wrote.
This issue has an air of unreality about it. Politicians are often dishonest about their true intentions, but there are few issues where either side spews the kind of spectacularly disingenuous baloney that Republican do on voting rights. They talk about voter fraud, and the integrity of the ballot, and in this case just making sure that fines and fees are appropriately paid.
But we all know that what’s really going on is that the Republican Party sees democracy as a threat to its ability to win and hold power. It’s as simple as that. They’re a minority party that right now holds the vast majority of political power in America, and they mean to keep it that way.
In some cases, it means just taking advantage of long-standing institutional arrangements, like the fact that the Senate gives the same two votes to the fewer than 600,000 people who live in Wyoming as it does to the nearly 40 million who live in California. Or the fact that the electoral college has enabled them to win the presidency while winning fewer votes in two of the past five elections.
But in other cases, it means moving aggressively to pass new laws to erect barriers to voting. For certain people, that is.
And to be clear, it doesn’t matter if things like felon disenfranchisement, voter ID requirements, closing polling places or voter purges are blunt instruments, instruments that might even keep some Republicans from voting. All that’s necessary is that overall, they harm Democrats more than Republicans. And Republicans know better than anyone that the clearest way to do that is to target black people.
So let’s not mince words: The Republican voter suppression effort is absolutely racist. That reality is not redeemed by the fact that in addition to suppressing the votes of black and brown people, Republicans also sometimes try to suppress the votes of young people, students, people who live in cities or other groups that are more likely to vote for Democrats.
Nor does it matter that the intent is more partisan than racial, by which I mean that if black people suddenly started voting Republican, these laws would be repealed in minutes. When you set about to disenfranchise people of color, even if you’re doing it only because you think they’re voting for the wrong party and not because of free-standing racial animus, the tactic you’ve chosen is still racist no matter how much love for all peoples you say you have in your heart.
I realize that Republicans will bristle at that charge and insist that both parties are just trying to maximize their advantage. That may be true, but it just happens that in this case Democrats are on the side of equality and democracy. One party wants to make voting as easy and inclusive as possible, and the other party wants the opposite.
The ultimate fate of the Florida felon disenfranchisement law is not yet known. Eventually it will probably find its way to the Supreme Court, where the five conservatives who make up the majority have seldom met a Republican voter suppression tactic they didn’t like. But for the moment, something like justice has prevailed.