Last November, Florida’s voters achieved a great victory for our democracy, passing a constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to most Floridians with felony convictions in their past.
Unfortunately, Florida’s Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis have recently rebuffed their voters by passing legislation, SB 7066, that will seriously hamper Amendment 4’s impact by conditioning the restoration of voting rights on the satisfaction of all legal financial obligations (fines, fees, costs, and restitution).
The League of Women Voters of Florida, the organization I lead, has filed suit to challenge that legislation as unconstitutional. But neither lawmakers’ anti-democratic malevolence, nor recent criticism from Monday morning quarterbacks about the Amendment’s drafting, will dampen our celebration of the progress that voters made when nearly two-thirds of them welcomed our fellow citizens back into the conversation last November.
In a recent op-ed, titled “Sloppy work on Amendment 4 opened the door for lawmakers’ interpretation,” one of our members, Francis J. Clifford — who supports the restoration of voting rights and surely means well — complained that the drafters of Amendment 4 did not insulate it enough from political monkey business.
There are surely lots of ways bad faith legislators can be obstructionist. But we disagree with Clifford about who is to blame for the Florida Legislature passing a law that conflicts with the longstanding American principle, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s ban on poll taxes, that the right to vote is not meted out based on wealth. Clifford lets Florida’s elected officials off too easy for their self-serving and racially motivated efforts to undermine the will of the voters.
Amendment 4 was written clearly and simply so that voters could understand what was at stake. The state Supreme Court approved the language unanimously. And voters did understand the significant step forward that they were taking for democracy.
Ballot initiatives are written for voters to consider in the booth on Election Day, not the small segment of the population lucky (or maybe it is unlucky) enough to attend law school like Clifford. On the 2018 ballot, Florida voters were asked to make a choice on 13 constitutional amendments, five statewide races, and two federal races, along with judicial and local races depending on the district. Voters had approximately 20 decisions to make in a state where getting to a polling booth can be a burden and lines can be multiple hours long.
Before Amendment 4’s passage, Florida’s lifetime voting ban for every person with a felony conviction made our state the most unforgiving and restrictive in the nation. Only Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky provided for such a ban, and Florida was responsible for blocking access to one quarter of the 6 million people nationwide affected by felony disenfranchisement laws. Amendment 4 ended the 100-year-old disenfranchisement policy first put in place to undermine the power of black voters after emancipation. It took Florida out of last place. It restored voting rights to approximately 1.4 million people overnight when it went into effect on Jan. 8.
But on June 28, DeSantis signed SB 7066, which was intended to take the vote right back from untold numbers of those newly enfranchised voters. The law requires repayment of debt without regard for whether a person can afford to pay and even when that debt has been converted from a criminal penalty to a civil obligation. For too many Floridians, SB 7066 is lifetime disenfranchisement by another name. The League and many others are determined to see these provisions stricken down or repealed.
Amendment 4’s drafters gave voters an opportunity to weigh in on a simple and fundamental question about how we want our democracy to work: do we believe in second chances? The voters resoundingly said yes, and I, for one, am still thrilled about that. Even with the shameful SB 7066 on the books, Amendment 4 gives many of Florida’s citizens access to the ballot box who didn’t have it before.
As for SB 7066, we believe that either the courts will step in or Floridians will remember which of their legislators tried to mute voters’ unmistakable cry for a more expansive democracy when they head to the polls in 2020. Or both.
In the meantime, the League of Women Voters and others are working hard to register as many returning citizens as possible.
As the great Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”