Criminalizing Poverty: Republicans Keep Former Black Felons Disenfranchised With Jim Crow-Era Rules

Avatar
Written by Dana Sanchez
disenfranchised
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, waves to supporters at a rally where Trump announced his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019 in Orlando. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

By a landslide, Floridians restored voting rights for up to 1.4 million former felons in the 2018 midterm elections, but Republican lawmakers decided that wasn’t happening, imposing a measure straight out of the Jim Crow playbook to thwart the will of the people: poll taxes. 

On Friday, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new law that will keep the majority of those former felons disenfranchised.

The new law forces former felons to pay all court-ordered restitution and court-related fees and fines before they can regain their voting rights.

Although some Senate Republicans initially floated a compromise that would allow ex-felons to vote if their fines were converted to civil liens, they eventually caved to their more extreme colleagues in the House.

By demanding that citizens pay all court fines and fees, Republicans could effectively roll back most of the 2018 amendment.

“The bill that DeSantis will soon sign simply replaces one disenfranchisement scheme for another,” Mark Joseph Stern reported for Slate.

Former offenders who have completed “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation” had their voting rights automatically restored in January.

The bill signed by DeSantis on Friday intentionally undermines the amendment, critics say. Many Democrats are calling it a modern-day “poll tax” that will keep felons disenfranchised. 

Florida was one of just three states along with Kentucky and Iowa that permanently banned former felons from registering to vote.

Advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union have suggested they will sue, The Hill reported.

One in 10 Floridians were disenfranchised at the time the initiative went to the ballot in 2018, including one in five Black voters—five times the rate of those who aren’t Black, according to the Sentencing Project, Kos Media reported.

“Florida’s felony disenfranchisement system itself is a remnant of Jim Crow: It was given its modern form shortly after the Civil War as part of a series of changes intended to disempower Black citizens in a state that was nearly one-half black at the time.”

In addition to serving time, criminal defendants have to fund Florida courts and law enforcement in the form of fines. Florida levied $1 billion in fines and fees from October 2017 to September 2018 alone. The new law also mandates the payment of fines that have been converted into civil liens, meaning that some people who have paid all of their criminal penalties still won’t be able to vote.

Republicans could keep up to 80 percent of eligible former felons permanently disenfranchised. That’s 1.1 million people — all because they’re too poor to pay court costs.

DeSantis won the 2018 election for governor—potentially thanks to felony disenfranchisement—by just 32,000 votes out of 8 million cast. He was able to fill several vacancies on the Florida Supreme Court. Republicans now hold a 6-1 majority.

Listen to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin | Episode 20: Andrew Gillum

Jamarlin talks to Andrew Gillum, mayor of Tallahassee and leading Democratic candidate for Florida governor. They discuss the DNC taking the Black vote for granted, its silence on the killing of 60 Palestinian protestors, and whether big tech and Silicon Valley elites can be regulated at the state level.

Instead of respecting the amendment, Florida Republicans insisted that they had to pass “enabling legislation,” opening the door for GOP legislators to gut Amendment 4. They swept away the will of the 5,148,926 Floridians — nearly 65 percent of voters — who voted to approve it.

Here are some of the fees Florida felons have to pay, according to Slate:

  • Public defender: $100 to $1,000
  • Reinstate a suspended driver’s license: $60 to $500
  • Receive medical treatment in prison
  • Maintain banking services behind bars: $6 a month.
  • Electronic monitoring after leaving prison: $105 a week.
  • Urinalysis: $25 each time.
  • Drug treatment: $10,000.
  • Halfway house: $25 a day.

Miami-Dade County claims to have more than $278 million in outstanding court fines.d Palm Beach County has $195.8 million. Palm Beach charges interest on court debt. Private debt collectors can recover this money up-to-40 percent commissions.

Supporters of the DeSantis measure must inform the legislature by November 2019 on how the state should identify people who qualify to vote under Amendment 4, which is supposed to be self-executing. This effort will cost Floridians millions of dollars, according to one Republican estimate.

“The Republican Party believes it can only win elections by suppressing votes,” Stern reported. “And in Florida, it has perfected the art of disenfranchisement—even when an overwhelming majority of voters literally amend the constitution to protect civil rights.”