Last week, when I read that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld the true intent of Amendment 4, my first thought was: What’s the catch?
The court ruled against Gov. Ron DeSantis’s attempt to deny the right to vote based on an inability to pay fines and fees. Though he has already announced he will appeal the decision again, it is unmistakably a huge win for 1.4 million disenfranchised Floridians, and any person on the side of voting rights and democracy.
But I know my state and I know my country.
As of 2016, nearly half a million Black Floridians were disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, making the passage of Amendment 4 in 2018 one of largest expansions of voting rights since the Civil Rights era. But historically, our state and our country has not granted full citizenship to Black and brown people without a fight. Look at the court’s decision and you can see the coming excuses clear as day.
“...the court did not define the term ‘genuine inability to pay’ (and left) the state with substantial discretion in choosing how to comply.”
The point is blurred with legal jargon but the gist is clear: The court refused to say what an “inability to pay” actually is. Now, the governor gets to define the law he is trying to undermine.
I’ve seen this playbook before. It’s the exact strategy conservatives have used for decades to gut anti-poverty programs like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), while claiming to care about reducing poverty.
Instead of finding solutions to very real problems, we’ve seen conservatives game the system to get the results they want and ignore poor people’s unchanged reality.
For example, last spring the Trump administration announced a change to how the federal government calculates the Official Poverty Measure (OPM). By changing the formula to one that assumes low-income people have the same resources and choices of wealthier families, the administration ignored how poor people actually live their lives and instead tried to artificially deflate the rate. If you only looked at the number they gave us, you’d understandably assume some poor people simply weren’t poor anymore. But try telling them that.
What’s to stop the governor from following his close ally’s lead and deciding against all apparent evidence that these newly-eligible voters actually are able to afford these unnecessary and exorbitant costs? A report from University of Florida’s Daniel A. Smith found that over 80 percent of these newly-eligible voters had outstanding fines and fees, most of which are not related to their sentences. 37 percent of those who owed money, were saddled with debts of more than $1,000.
Gov. DeSantis’s “substantial discretion” allows for the same nonsensical logic I’ve watched the Trump administration employ in order to deny the reality that poor people live day in and day out.
But this reality is inarguable: One million more Floridians wanted to pass Amendment 4 than wanted Ron DeSantis in our governor’s mansion. Yet he is desperate to subvert their will and silence not only their voices, but the voices of people Floridians resoundingly said deserved one. It begs the question, what is he afraid they’ll say?
David Ballard, born and raised in Florida, is the campaign and communications manager for Poverty to Prosperity at the Center for American Progress.