GOP members of the state legislature had resisted for years any change to the state’s disenfranchisement law, which denied voting rights to roughly 1.4 million former felons. That population skews disproportionately black; its effect was to impose a lifetime voting ban on 20 percent of black Floridians. Of the 6 million or so disenfranchised ex-convicts in the United States, about a quarter of them are in Florida.
Most Floridians rightly regarded that as disgraceful, and nearly two-thirds cast their ballots last fall to scrap it by adopting Amendment 4, a change to the state constitution. The measure restores the vote automatically to ex-offenders (except for murderers and felony sex offenders) upon completion of their sentences, including parole and probation.
The amendment says nothing about requiring felons to render payment for court costs as a condition of regaining the vote, but Republicans in Tallahassee saw in the omission an opportunity for mischief. Late last week, with the annual legislative session drawing to a close, they passed a bill that blocks former felons from voting until they pay outstanding fines, fees and restitution — sums that can amount to many thousands of dollars. The effect would be to maintain the state’s disenfranchisement regime for thousands or tens of thousands of ex-convicts who have already served their sentences.
It remains unclear whether Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a first-term governor, will sign or veto the bill. He should veto it. Florida voters, a closely divided cohort in a state notorious for election-night squeakers, made their consensus clear in backing Amendment 4 by a margin of nearly 2 to 1. If Mr. DeSantis sticks with his GOP cohort by affixing a huge asterisk to that electoral outcome, it will be a demonstration of contempt for Florida voters and determination to maintain a disproportionately white electorate in hopes that Republicans will profit politically.
For years, other U.S. states have been doing away with disenfranchising former felons, a noxious feature of a blatantly racist past that departs from Western international norms. Just three states — Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia — retain rules automatically imposing a lifetime ban on voting by those with felony convictions, and in Virginia, the effect was largely negated by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who restored voting rights to more than 170,000 of them.
Amendment 4 in Florida constitutes the biggest single expansion of voting rights in the United States since poll taxes and literacy tests were abolished a half-century ago. The GOP legislation would diminish that reform by resurrecting a new kind of poll tax, denying the ballot box to those of meager means. That would perpetuate an injustice that is a stain on Florida and would become a stain on the Republican Party.