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House Democrats blast Florida’s ‘illegal poll tax’ amid federal oversight push

A hearing on voter rights was held in Fort Lauderdale on Monday.

House Democrats seeking to build a case for renewed federal oversight of election laws came to South Florida Monday and accused state lawmakers of systematically disenfranchising voters and passing legislation that would impose an illegal “poll tax” on former felons seeking to regain the right to vote.

Members of an elections subcommittee of the Committee on House Administration held a hearing on voter rights in Fort Lauderdale as part of a seven-city fact-finding tour to create a basis for an update of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. At times, the meeting felt as much an airing of grievances with Florida’s Republican-led state government as an evidentiary hearing, with Democrats ticking off a list of election-related offenses.

“Florida has one of the most repressive disenfranchisement policies in the country and has made it extremely difficult for those convicted of a felony to have those rights restored,” said subcommittee Chairwoman and Ohio Democrat Marcia Fudge.

Over the last decade, Florida has created arduous voting lines by arbitrarily reducing early voting, been sued over the lack of bilingual voting services and repeatedly watched its elections become the source of national scrutiny. Monday’s hearing is a sign that the nation’s largest swing state is in Congress’ sights as it seeks to restore an oversight process known as “pre-clearance,” in which counties and states are forced to submit voting changes to the federal government for review.

Called to testify, losing Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum urged sweeping changes to what he said are inequitable election laws that in November led to tens of thousands of votes being rejected. Judith Browne Dianis, head of the civil rights group Advancement Project, said that Florida’s voter purge system “can’t be trusted.” And Miami activist Marleine Bastien said Haitians and other minority voters are frequently discriminated against when attempting to cast a ballot.

But Florida’s handling of a newly passed constitutional amendment restoring the rights of former felons to vote took center stage as members of the committee and South Florida’s congressional delegation ripped the state government for pushing an “illegal poll tax” on the voters of Florida and for “ignoring” the will of the state’s voters. Lawmakers passed the provision by tacking it onto a bill tailored to address some of the problems that plagued Florida’s 2018 election and recounts.

The bill in question passed in the waning hours of the 2019 legislative session, and once signed would require felons to pay full restitution, fines and fees imposed in their sentencing before regaining the right to vote. Fudge, in her opening statements, quoted a statistic from the Brennan Center for Justice that, from 2010 when Rick Scott became governor until 2016, the number of disenfranchised voters rose from 150,000 to 1.6 million.

Some, perhaps many of the former felons who signed up to vote since January will be removed as voters due to unpaid fees once the bill takes effect and the state once again begins notifying local supervisors about convicted felons on their voting rolls.

“They couldn’t help themselves in Tallahassee,” said U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, one of four South Florida Democrats to participate in the proceedings. “The Legislature decided to take this [amendment] meant to help people cast their vote and put a poll tax on top of it.”

Republicans have defended the legislation, pointing out that they included a provision that would allow former felons to request that a judge waive or reduce fines and fees. Language in the legislation also clarifies that the money owed includes “only” the amounts stated in a defendant’s sentencing document and does not include “costs that accrue” afterward — despite misleading statements in Monday’s hearing about the hypothetical theft of a $400 8-track player in the 1980s becoming a restitution fee worth “thousands of dollars.”

After the Legislature passed its bill, Gov. Ron DeSantis said the legislation was proper to ensure “that voting rights are only restored upon successful completion of all terms of a sentence and victims receive the restitution they are owed.”

Monday’s hearing comes as House Democrats seek to respond to a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by which the U.S. Justice Department has established oversight of voting laws in states and counties found to have engaged in discriminatory election practices. The high court’s ruling found that the federal government was improperly using old, outdated information to pursue oversight, so Congress is attempting to establish new policies to guide the process, under which the federal government reviews all attempts to change voting laws in supervised jurisdictions.

Only five Florida counties were covered by preclearance prior to 2013. But Monday’s hearing showed that the state could be among those subject to new oversight efforts should the Voting Rights Act ever be updated — although U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said it was far too early to speculate.

“Taking this show on the road and making sure we don’t just sit on the U.S. Capitol and get this testimony is crucial,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Other controversies in Florida’s voting process were also dredged up during Monday’s hearing.

DeSantis, with the state being sued over bilingual services, recently announced that he would initiate rule-making to address the availability of Spanish-language ballots and voter services in a state where 13 counties are required under federal law to provide bilingual election materials.

Gillum, whose younger brother was purged from the voting rolls in Leon County this year, testified that “I don’t trust the purging process in this state” — a process that was maligned under former Gov. Rick Scott was found to have violated federal law. Gillum and Deutch also argued that Florida’s process of verifying the identifies of mail-ballot voters is flawed, with Deutch noting a study by University of Florida professor Dan Smith that 15 percent of young Parkland voters had their ballots rejected.

Former Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes, right, is greeted by supporters at the conclusion the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on Voting Rights and Election Administration in Florida’s administration hearing on Monday inside the Broward County Government Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Carl Juste | Miami Herald)
Former Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes, right, is greeted by supporters at the conclusion the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on Voting Rights and Election Administration in Florida’s administration hearing on Monday inside the Broward County Government Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Carl Juste | Miami Herald)

The election bill passed by the Legislature last week included reforms intended to reduce the number of mail ballots invalidated due to late arrival, and to standardize the process by which election officials verify signatures. They also eliminated a problematic ballot design that U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson blamed Monday on Bill Nelson’s election defeat to Rick Scott — an awkward situation given that Brenda Snipes, the Broward supervisor of elections who was removed from office by Scott after the election — was sitting in the audience.

“I have caution and pause for having Washington, D.C., bureaucracy so involved in the election process becase one size does not fit all,” said Georgia Republican Barry Loudermilk. “My understanding is a lot of the issues that were raised are being addressed by the latest bill, a bipartisan bill, that passed the Florida Legislature. A lot of those issues will be addressed, including those confusing ballots.”