AN ESTIMATED 1.6 MILLION PEOPLE in Florida could not vote until this year due to a Florida law dating back to 1868. The law disenfranchised former convicts, but it was truly intended to restrict a newly freed African-American population from voting as a part of the state’s Black Codes. In 2011, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition began a grassroots campaign to restore voting rights to former convicts through proposed Amendment 4. This amendment gives former felons, excluding those convicted of murder and sexual offenses, the right to vote. By 2017, the cause gained so much momentum that the ballot initiative for the amendment had 800,000 signatures. This enabled Amendment 4 to appear on the ballot in the 2018 midterm elections, giving Floridan voters the power to adopt the amendment. Five million votes later, former convicts were granted the right to vote.
If former felons wanted to vote before 2018 they would have to apply for enfranchisement, which was a long and arduous process. A person would have to wait at least five years after they have completed their probation, then write an application and wait to be seen by Florida’s Clemency Board. Once in front of the board, one’s fate is decided by the Governor and four members of their cabinet. From Gov. Charlie Crist to Gov. Rick Scott the number of approved people went from over 150,000 to 3,000 a year. “Your right to vote can depend on who’s in office and how they feel that day,” Myrna Perez of the Brennan Center for Justice said to PBS News Hour about the Clemency Board. Amendment 4 eliminates the process of the Clemency Board for former felons. They can now register to vote and participate in our democracy like any other citizen.
People across the country celebrated the approval of the constitutional amendment; it is the largest expansion of voting rights since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Starting January 8th the newly franchised were able to register to vote and Florida saw an unprecedented increase in voter registration, with hundreds in just one day.
Amendment 4 is “self-executing” meaning it goes into effect without the help of the state legislators. But, Florida’s Republican-controlled government still want control over it. Many who opposed the amendment and its self-execution commented on the language of it, saying it’s too general. What does it mean for a felon to have served their sentence? In mid-March, a bill was approved by a Florida House committee which would force former felons to pay court fees and other costs before being allowed to register to vote. State senators and representatives argue that once a person has paid these fees, on top of paying court fines and restitution, they will have officially served their sentence. Florida itself has the second highest number of court fees in the country, and it’s what nearly funds all of Floridas courts. Former Florida Governor and current U.S. Representative, Charlie Crist has condemned this bill and called it a “poll tax” along with others such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the ACLU.
The cost of court fees, court fines, and restitution could be thousands of dollars, money which people out of prison might not have readily available. The unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people in the U.S. is 27% percent, which is six times higher than the current U.S. unemployment rate. This leads to people who come from low-income backgrounds to be at a disadvantage to those who come from wealthier backgrounds. Those who are able to pay thousands of dollars in order to vote will have a voice in our democracy, while those who cannot afford to quickly pay to vote will have to wait. Problems arise with this new meaning of “serving a sentence.” Makeda Yohannes, an expert in voting rights and elections, says that it will be difficult for the state to determine who has paid their fees when some people have completed their probation decades ago. She further states, “The State should not waste its resources on examining decades-old court records in order to potentially deprive someone the right to vote.” Before Amendment 4 was approved, Gov. Rick Scott’s Clemency Board was extremely strict and frowned upon, but it also did not use a person's economic status as a reason against their eligibility to vote.
“The Legislature would be better served by honoring the will of the people and not interfering with the clear language of Amendment 4,” says Eliza Sweren-Becker. The 65% of people in Florida who approved of Amendment 4 did not vote for former felons to have to pay court fees first in order to vote. Amendment 4 stated that in order for a sentence to be considered complete all that has to be paid off is restitution, then a person could register. Alterations to the amendment have been introduced into the legislature, leading the amendment vulnerable to a partisan agenda with additions like this modern-day “poll tax”.
Amendment 4 made headlines in the fall as people rallied behind an expansion of our democracy. Now that it has been approved, Amendment 4 supporters still face an uphill battle as it risks losing its main purpose in the Florida legislature. Nearly 1.6 million people are eagerly waiting to participate in our democracy, but are in danger of being denied their rights as American citizens because of their economic status. While it is still not certain that these limits will be imposed on Amendment 4, the very threat of them bruises our democracy.