Florida Supreme Court Ignores Will of the People, Re-Imposes Restrictions on Felony Voting
In 2018, the voters of Florida approved Amendment 4 to the state constitution by a sixty-four percent majority. That Amendment restored the right to vote to almost all felons once they had served their time in prison, on parole and/or probation.
Again, sixty-four percent of Florida voters approved this measure. That amounted to over five million people.
But just this month, the Florida Supreme Court joined Florida’s far right Republican-dominated legislature and its reactionary Republican Governor Ron DeSantis in ignoring that plebiscite entirely. That’s right. The Supreme Court of Florida did not bother to “defy,” comment on or even notice the vote exercised by the people. To do so would have required them to at least acknowledge that such a vote had occurred. No. As you will see below, this court acted as though the people of Florida do not exist and simply ignored them altogether.
This High Court has declared that felons’ voting rights should not and will not be restored unless and until they have paid any and all money owed to the judicial system, including court costs, fees and fines and restitution to victims of their crimes.
With this ruling, the Florida Supreme Court has made it clear that the express will of the people is irrelevant, and amounts to nothing more than an irritating nuisance for those politicians and judges who really run and control the goings-on in the “Great State of Florida.”
On January 21, the Tampa Bay Times expressed its righteous indignation at the court’s decision thusly:
Never mind what 5.1 million voters intended when they voted for the amendment — the justices never considered them. In fact, the Court ignored its own precedent that called for considering the intent of the voters when considering constitutional questions and interpreting provisions to best reflect that intent.
The Times tried hard to understand and explain, even rationalize, the court’s position, though. It said that the Florida Supreme Court,
…adopts an unbending embrace of “textualism” and cites the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who argued the courts should rigidly adhere to the narrow definition of the words — at the expense of what Framers of the Constitution meant or voters intended. It is a pinched approach by conservatives who warn of activist judges and the creation of new rights, and it has enormous implications for Floridians.
Perhaps all is not lost, though, said the paper, because, “There is still hope for felons who want their voting rights automatically restored but cannot afford to pay their fines, fees, court costs and restitution.” That’s because a separate lawsuit is still winding its way through the labyrinthine Florida civil litigation system aimed at, once again, simply allowing people who have done their time and thereby “paid their debt to society” to vote.
Of course, Florida is one of the proud leaders in voter suppression strategies and tactics in the US. It has also been one of the most successful states at this sort of thing. DeSantis himself owes his 2019 “election” to Florida’s governor’s mansion to rampant voter suppression.
What the Florida Supreme Court has done here is, amazingly, impose nothing less than an old fashioned “poll tax” upon people who have been convicted of a felony. I would venture to guess that most felons cannot immediately pay all of their court-imposed fines, fees and costs all at once, and must resort to some sort of payment plan or agreement with the state.
Meanwhile, they are likely struggling to right themselves and stay out of trouble so as not to return to prison. Thus, for all intents and purposes, they are effectively disenfranchised simply and only because they are too poor to pay for the right to vote. Their franchise, you see, is subject to a state-imposed installment plan, which in not a few cases, may take years to finally end. And, if during the payment period they miss even one payment, they not only will not be allowed to vote, but it’s back to prison they go so that they may start the whole vicious cycle over again.
Put another way, refusal to allow ex-offenders to fully participate in the decision-making process of the body politic actually encourages recidivism; that is, it keeps that revolving door turning. I once worked as a counselor and tutor in Chicago for Roosevelt University’s “Life Skills and Re-Entry Program.” Our objective was to stop that revolving door in its tracks and equip people returning to society from prison with marketable and social skills. At Roosevelt, we often used the following aphorism to impress upon our “clients” the importance of getting and keeping a job and of voting:
“Many of you actually live in prison and are only just visiting the streets.”
(Thankfully, Illinois places no restrictions on felons voting. Just the opposite: Illinois actually encourages “returning citizens” to get registered and to vote. Indeed, in Chicago, even jail inmates are allowed to vote, encouraged to vote, while still locked up).
This Florida Supreme Court declaration, therefore, is the 21st century version of an old and tired and racist tradition designed and implemented to keep “undesirables” (read: black people, other “people of color,” young people, poor people, and Democrats in general) away from the polls.
This is also a decades-long attempt to institute and normalize Republican minority rule in places like Florida. There is ample evidence that if all of the citizens of that state (and many others) were allowed to vote, Republicans would quickly be relegated to third or fourth party status, and would eventually fade completely into political oblivion. Republicans know and understand this simple numbers game better than anyone else. They have read the clear handwriting on the wall. They know that they constitute a decided numerical “minority” party, and that they must cheat to have any hope of winning. That is also why they are just fine with continuation of the slavery-inspired Electoral College and the gerrymandering of congressional districts to the point of ridiculousness.
Indeed, the current Republican idea of governance, then, is the kissing cousin of former apartheid South Africa wherein for so very long, a tiny white settler minority oppressed, repressed, suppressed, enslaved, brutalized — ruled — millions upon millions of native black Africans by force of arms. The current American “system” of voting, including gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the Electoral College amount to the same thing as the former apartheid South African “model”— an ever-diminishing minority dominating an ever-growing, indeed overwhelming majority.
Finally, as the impeachment trial of Donald Trump rolls on, it’s important to note that one of the reasons Trump needs to be removed now, rather than wait for the November elections, is that there are strong indications everywhere one looks that he and the Republicans have already rigged the election machinery and processes in their favor, principally, but not only, through unrelenting and brazen voter suppression techniques and strategies — from presidential balloting right down to races for village dog catcher.
For a more expansive and detailed look at the history of voter suppression in the US, see my recent essay” GOP Voter Suppression Kicks Into High Gear .