In November 2018, the midterm elections in the state of Florida included a crucial ballot initiative titled Amendment 4, inquiring whether or not past convicted felons should regain their right to vote. With the exception of those convicted of murder and sexual offenses, those who completed their sentence, parole and probation automatically regained their right to vote after a supermajority voted in favor of the initiative —adding the amendment to the Florida State Constitution.
This historical move was intended to right an almost two-century wrong of stripping citizens of their right to vote and resulted in about 1.4 million Floridians gaining their right to vote.
It was a huge victory for combating voter suppression, consisting of about 10% of the adult population and 20% of the African-American population. Those numbers can and will change the political scene in Florida, something the newly elected Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-FL, is well aware of.
Since the implementation of Amendment 4 in January 2019, the conservative-majority legislature in Florida and the Republican governor have teamed up to do what they can to increase the administrative burden on ex-felons. This was done to combat the change in voter demographics which will likely flip many red seats to blue.
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In June 2019, the state signed into law a series of restrictions that intend to prohibit hundreds of thousands of people from obtaining their right to vote. The law established a requirement that every ex-felon had to pay back every penny of their court fees and fines from conviction before obtaining back their right.
Just one more political effort to suppress the vote by the right is this modern-day poll tax and it has racial implications based upon the targeted population placing a bias yet again on the wealthy. Not only is it incredibly difficult to find good work after serving jail time, but the costs of getting back on your feet and, much more, supporting a family after being in prison for a number of years is the hardest thing to come back from in today’s society.
And on top of that, these people cannot even vote after finally re-obtaining their right because of what could be tens of thousands of dollars in fees and fines — money that should be going towards putting food on the table and a roof over their heads.
It is also not difficult to get a felony charge there.
In the state of Florida, felonies are categorized into four degrees of severity. A capital felony, such as first-degree murder, can be punishable by the death penalty or otherwise life in prison with a fine of up to $15,000. A first-degree felony can result in up to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000 and a second-degree felony can result in up to 15 years in prison with the same fine. A third-degree felony can result in up to 5 years in prison with a fine of up to $5,000.
In the state of Florida, someone can be convicted of a third-degree felony for possession of a fake ID or possession of over 20 grams of cannabis. A second-degree offense could be selling drugs within a thousand feet of a university, and if that drug is cocaine it could be a first-degree felony. All of which are very common on a college campus such as our own.
That is how easy it is to forfeit your right to vote, the next decade or three of your life and have a fine that is impossible to pay off while in prison or in the years following.
The ACLU promptly filed a lawsuit against it, claiming the law created “two classes of returning citizens: a group wealthy enough to afford their voting rights and another group who cannot afford to vote.”
Last week, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in favor of the conservatives to uphold the stipulation in Amendment 4. The conservative-majority court completely disregarded the already-established precedent of taking voter intent into consideration when deciding the constitutionality of legislation.
So when 64% of the Florida electorate wanted to grant suffrage to ex-felons, the government shoved it right back into their face — some democracy.
Small pieces of voting legislation by state governments can have monumental effects on the future of the state. The 1.4 million people in Florida showing up at the ballot box on November 3, 2020, could not only flip the majority in the Florida legislature but has the potential to have monstrous implications for the presidential race as well. Florida has historically been a swing state and an essential win for presidential campaigns, and voter suppression will skew a real reflection of the sentiment of the electorate.
If this scares you in the slightest or motivates you to act upon this injustice, support the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition in advocacy or donate to help pay fees, fines and give someone the right to vote.
If you’re worried about voter suppression here in Wisconsin or your home state, support Fair Fight 2020 to donate or volunteer to fight voter suppression and secure free, fair elections in 2020.
This is a very real issue that could affect you in the near future. Help restore democracy in its fullest form.
Kaitlin Kons ([email protected]) is a sophomore studying political science and public policy.