IN CLOSELY divided Florida, it is hard to imagine Democrats and Republicans agreeing on much of anything. But huge numbers of them did last November, when nearly 65 percent of Florida voters decided to let released felons cast ballots in future elections. This was supposed to be a landmark moment in the advancement of voting rights. Felon disenfranchisement in Florida was an 1868 relic devised after the Civil War to prevent African Americans from voting. According to an estimate from the Sentencing Project, the policy banned a fifth of African Americans in Florida from voting in 2016.
After last year’s referendum, headlines promised that more than 1 million people would finally get the right to vote again, the largest extension of voting rights in decades. Since then, felons who had paid their debt to society have been registering to vote and participating in local elections.
But Florida Republican lawmakers are pushing a bill that would make this great reenfranchisement substantially narrower than it seemed. The natural inference is that they worry that newly enfranchised ex-convicts, who are disproportionately African American, will mostly vote for Democrats. Republicans insist that politics is not their motivation. But their actions are still wrong.
The state constitutional amendment that voters approved says all released felons will have their voting rights restored, unless they are guilty of murder or a sexual offense, upon completion of their sentences. The amendment’s backers argue it needs no elaboration from the state legislature. A Florida House committee nevertheless approved a bill Tuesday that would crimp eligibility for reenfranchisement, targeting the poor, in particular.
The bill would deny voting rights to felons who have not paid all the court fines and fees they owe. Insisting that ex-convicts pay off fines associated with a judge’s sentence is one thing. Denying released felons the right to vote because they still owe public-defender fees, drug-testing fees or probation supervision fees is clearly not what voters had in mind when they passed the constitutional amendment. It is also a higher standard than existed in the state’s old system, in which ex-convicts sought reenfranchisement from the governor, which required only that victim restitution be paid in full.
The bill would also interpret broadly which ex-convicts the amendment meant to deny reenfranchisement. Republicans would construe “sexual offenses” not just as rape or other types of assault but also as lesser crimes such as selling pornography inside a school zone. A Florida Senate version of the bill, meanwhile, would construe murder to include attempted murder and manslaughter.
Once people have served their time, they should have a say in how they are governed, like any other citizen. Florida voters resoundingly agreed. Republican politicians should not seek to thwart both justice and the will of the people.