When Floridians voted yes on Amendment 4 last year, they spoke loud and clear: 65% voted to restore voting rights for Floridians who completed a felony sentence (except for felony sex crimes and murder), opening the door for over 1.5 million disenfranchised Floridians to regain their voting rights. But on Wednesday, the Florida House passed a measure requiring those with felony convictions to pay up before they can vote again, a decision that flies in the face of voters’ wishes.
Passing a citizen-sponsored amendment to a state constitution is no small feat and voters couldn’t have been clearer about what they wanted, but Florida Republicans are clearly more interested in their own political power than what their constituents want.
Before Amendment 4, Florida banned anyone convicted of a felony from voting for life. Under the state’s amended constitution, those with felony records automatically become eligible to vote again once they complete their sentences (including any parole or probation). But if the proposal becomes law, they won’t get their voting rights back until they’ve paid all court-ordered fines, fees, and restitution.
This could potentially shut out hundreds of thousands of would-be black voters. As it stands, black Floridians are four times as likely to lose their voting rights due to a felony conviction as their white counterparts. Black Americans are also much more likely to be unable to pay up, since average black household wealth is one-tenth that of white households, and holding those rights hostage to court fees would keep many from regaining them.
This modern-day poll tax is part of a shameful legacy of disenfranchising poor people and people of color. The original poll taxes emerged during the Reconstruction era. Then, as now, the vastly outnumbered ruling class sought ways to shut out potential voters who could disrupt their stranglehold on power. Wealthy white landowners deployed a wide range of tools to grandfather in their own political dominance (including the grandfather clause itself, which limited voting rights to those whose grandfathers could vote). These Jim Crow measures effectively shut newly liberated black slaves, and their descendants, out of democracy.
Today’s Republican lawmakers and their rich friends see the writing on the wall. They know that the majority of Americans support increasing taxes on the wealthy, raising the minimum wage, and other changes that would cut into their bottom line. And while they successfully convinced Americans for decades that corporate tax cuts, deregulation, and cutting government services are good for ordinary people, that kind of propaganda just isn’t working anymore. They know they can’t win on the merits of their ideas, so now they’re pulling out the old playbook to hold onto power. The 24th Amendment explicitly banned poll taxes, but that hasn’t stopped Republicans from getting creative.
The ballot box should be a place where all Americans are equal. It’s the tool we’re all supposed to have, regardless of what we look like or where we come from, to hold our elected officials accountable in a democracy. It is often the poor and historically marginalized that have the most to lose or gain by the decisions made by those in power, yet they are the most likely to be kept out of reach by corrupt and power-hungry politicians.
Republicans know they would lose power if they actually had to answer to all Americans, so they’re working overtime to keep the electorate small, white, and wealthy. From gerrymandering to voter ID laws to purging voter rolls, they’re making sure democracy works for them, and not for ordinary people. After all, if they can keep Americans that disagree with them out of the polls, they don’t have to listen to them. In effect, Florida Republicans ignored the will of voters in order to keep ignoring the will of voters.
We can’t keep allowing the wealthy and politicians (who are often rich themselves) to rewrite the rules of the game whenever they feel their wealth or power threatened. Instead, we need to make sure every voice and vote counts in America. The Florida House’s attempts to overturn the will of the people and tie voting rights to one’s financial status is shameful, and every lawmaker who voted for it has revealed that they have no interest in actually serving the public.