Voter Suppression in Florida

Let's call it what it is.

“Linked” by Steven L. Taylor is licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0

In November of 2018 the people of the state of Florida voted 64.5% to 35.5% to amend the state’s constitution to allow felons to have their voting rights restored.

The text of the ballot measure was as follows:

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.

The measure had to pass with a 60% supermajority (which it did) and the basic intent of the provision is clear: instead of permanent disenfranchise that could only be alleviated by a grace of the governor (in what was a capricious process), felons would have their right to vote returned upon the serving of their sentences, to include parole and probation.

However, the Republican state legislature and governor have taken an expansive view of what “all terms of their sentence” means.

Via the Tampa Bay Times: Ron DeSantis signs Amendment 4 bill, limiting felon voting:

The bill passed last month by Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature requires all felons to pay back their financial obligations before being eligible to vote.

Those obligations are expected to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of felons who can’t immediately afford to pay off their court fees, fines and restitution to victims.

[…]

Supporters of the amendment argued that the language was simple enough, and that the Legislature didn’t need to clarify it further.
But county elections supervisors asked lawmakers for guidance interpreting the amendment.

For supporters of Amendment 4, the language meant that felons who left prison and completed parole and probation could automatically vote.
That would also have been the simplest way to carry it out, too, since the Florida Department of Corrections tracks felons who are still under supervision.

But Republican lawmakers took a more restrictive approach. They argued that “all terms of sentence” included the various court fines, fees and restitution to victims that felons often have to pay, and that felons would have to repay all of those debts before being able to vote.

While some other states have similar policies, it means that some felons will have to wait years to vote, if they can ever vote at all.

There is no need to mince words here: this is about making sure a large number of African-American males do not have their voting rights restored. Republicans full well know that those voters are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican. And they further can do basic math.

Trump won Florida by just over a point in 2016.

Rick Scott won the Senate race by 0.2% in 2018

DeSantis won the governorship by 0.4% in 2018.

More potential Democratic voters could turn those tides.

And yes, I fully understand that many Democrats support the measure because it will help them politically. But even if this is just a contest of competing cynicism, one side wants to suppress votes for its advantage, while the other wants to increase the number of voters who can exercise their rights.

So, yes, the there is politics all over this discussion, at its most fundamental level, and regardless of whom it helps, there is a basic question of what is right or wrong here. It is wrong to have almost 2/3rds of the state vote to restore voting rights and then turn around and vitiate that decision.

Not to mention that at its most fundamental, felon disenfranchisement has always been about denying voting rights to African-Americans (unless one thinks that the birth of such laws during Reconstruction was just a coincidence). It is an unjust policy that should be done away with.

Beyond the attack on representative democracy, the plan is costly and creates a bureaucratic nightmare for those seeking to have their rights restored:

The Republicans’ approach to restoring the right to vote for felons is also confusing and expensive. Because no state or local agency tracks restitution, lawmakers estimated it would cost “millions” to carry out.
The Legislature assigned another $750,000 to the Commission on Offender Review in next year’s budget to process additional applications.
The bill DeSantis approved does provide a path for some felons to have their fines, fees and restitution waived. If victims approve it, felons can petition a judge to either waive their restitution or have it converted into community service hours.

But how felons would petition a judge was never laid out in the bill, and it’s unclear whether felons would have to hire a lawyer, for example, to petition a judge.

To reinforce the post’s title: this is a policy designed to suppress votes. It is a policy clearly designed to help the party that passed it. Moreover, it is a policy designed to thwart the will of those who voted for Amendment 4. And to cap all of that off: it is targeted at African-Americans.*

It is not about justice or appropriate punishment of those who have committed crimes (that is what the jail sentence is for).

A dozen states deny voting rights to some or all convicts, even after they’ve fulfilled their prison, parole, or probation sentences, according to a 2016 report by The Sentencing Project, a non-profit criminal justice advocacy group. But Florida was by far the most prominent offender. Its disenfranchised felon population was the country’s largest, thanks to the state’s sizable number of prisoners and its relatively harsh sentencing guidelines.

“Florida was the elephant in the room,” says Christopher Uggen, a University of Minnesota sociologist and a co-author of Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy.

While the state has one of the biggest prison populations in the U.S., it has also convicted a disproportionate number of people of color. White people still make up the largest share of felons in Florida. But among African-Americans in the state, 20 percent have been disenfranchised because of a felony conviction compared with 9.2 percent of the overall population.

Florida’s voting restrictions stem from some of the darker shadows of the Reconstruction Era, when Southern states often looked for ways to suppress black voters. In 1868, Florida’s Constitution took away felons’ right to vote, even making a crime like petty larceny a felony.

Source: Medium: How Thousands of Voting Ex-Felons Could Impact Florida’s Elections.

And those voters are now back where they were before the November vote.

Hooray for justice and democracy.


*It is worth pointing out that, by my count, there are zero African-Americans in the Florida Senate’s Republican caucus and one in the House of Representative’s GOP caucus.

FILED UNDER: US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Teve says:

    As a longtime Florida resident this is the least surprising thing I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of when I was teaching high school students in November of 2008 and they told me, (no doubt just repeating what they were hearing at home) well, now the blacks will be completely out of control.

  2. mattbernius says:

    Thank you for writing about the Steven. I agree 100% with everything you wrote — in particular that ultimately this shouldn’t be a Democrat/Republican issue at all.

    One thing I’d like to build on:

    Rick Scott won the Senate race by 0.2% in 2018

    Rick Scott’s record on voting rights restoration as Governor was particularly sketchy. As you note, prior to the passage of the ballot initiative, the only way to felons could get their ability to vote restored was to petition the Governor. During his tenure Scott:

    * Restored the voting rights of twice as many whites as blacks and three times as many white men as black men.

    * Scott restored rights to a higher percentage of Republicans and a lower percentage of Democrats than any of his predecessors since 1971.

    [More details:]

    * Blacks accounted for 27 percent of those who had their voting rights restored despite the fact that 43 percent of those released from state prisons over the past two decades were black.

    * Black men accounted for 16 percent of voting restorations even though 38 percent of released prisoners were black men.

    Source: https://www.palmbeachpost.com/news/20181025/florida-felon-voting-rights-who-got-theirs-back-under-scott

    Disparities like that are not the result of pure coincidence. And the fact that Scott was such a historic outlier only gets to the broader problem at hand.

    (note there are some analysts who argue that if voting rights had been restored equally, Scott might have lost – https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/11/19/18102579/florida-senate-midterm-election-results-felons-nelson-scott – I’m not going to go that far. I do think the results of the race would have been even more narrow).

  3. @mattbernius: Those are some stunning (and damning) figures. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Moosebreath says:

    This is all of a piece with the attempts to nullify elections in Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin by taking away powers from incoming Democrats after the election was held, mid-decade redistricting as was done in Texas about 15 years ago, and of course gerrymandering. The current generation of Republican office holders are convinced they cannot win on a level playing field, so they have to change the rules as they go along.

  5. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    If you look at the full article, the numbers actually get worse, especially when you consider how few people had their voting rights restored. Scott was an extreme outlier, only restoring on average somewhere in the order of 350 people’s rights a year. I think the mean for his predecessors was a average rate of ~3000/year (with Crist as a huge outlier on the restoration side).

    And I’m sure some “colorblind” readers will try and twist themselves to say that this had everything to do with party identification versus race, but the disparities just cannot be ignored. To hit that percentage of Democrats they had to specifically target people of color. That’s racist on its face.

    One more aide: restoration of voting rights is good criminal justice policy as voting makes people feel connected to their community. And we know that connection is critical to preventing reoffense/recidivism.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    There is no need to mince words here: this is about making sure a large number of African-American males do not have their voting rights restored. Republicans full well know that those voters are more likely to vote Republican than Democrat. And they further can do basic math.

    Heh, couldn’t let it pass, Steven. 😉

    Here in Misery, we passed a constitutional amendment by a 62-38 margin that among other things set up a non-partisan redistricting process. Within 2 months our wonderful Republican super majority state lege and GOP governor were working on reversing it.

  7. @OzarkHillbilly: Oops! Glad you pointed that out.

  8. An Interested Party says:

    Today’s GOP really is the direct descendant of yesterday’s Dixiecrats…as their main group of voters continues to shrink, how long will they be able to get away with this and what happens when opposing forces push back against this blatant suppression…

  9. Jax says:

    They know they won’t win unless they work the system to legally cheat.

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