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Florida is falling behind on health care and voting rights | Column
“Florida has the worst voter disenfranchisement record in the country,” writes a state legislator.
People gather around the Ben & Jerry's "Yes on 4" truck in Miami in 2018 as they learn about Amendment 4, which focused on felon voting rights.
People gather around the Ben & Jerry's "Yes on 4" truck in Miami in 2018 as they learn about Amendment 4, which focused on felon voting rights. [ WILFREDO LEE | Associated Press ]
Published Sep. 21, 2020

In the last few months, thousands regained their right to vote after the governor took executive action in a move that was widely hailed as a huge step forward and the right thing to do.

Politics has always held the interest of Fentrice Driskell, an attorney at Carlton Fields and one of the panelists for the upcoming Wonder Women Unite business seminar. Photo courtesy of Sean/Pics and Flixs
Politics has always held the interest of Fentrice Driskell, an attorney at Carlton Fields and one of the panelists for the upcoming Wonder Women Unite business seminar. Photo courtesy of Sean/Pics and Flixs

Of course, this was not here in Florida, but in Iowa, a state with a very conservative state government. Similarly, in Oklahoma and Missouri, Medicaid expansion overwhelmingly passed through a ballot initiative making it 38 states (plus D.C.) that have expanded affordable health care access to millions.

That these very conservative states were able to pass such measures raises the question: Why can’t we do the same here in Florida? If anything, it appears the country is moving forward and finding common ground while Florida stubbornly falls behind.

Efforts to put Medicaid expansion to a vote have been met with immovable opposition from Republicans, who hold the majority in the Florida Legislature. Similarly, the governor and Republican leaders in both chambers have gone above and beyond to make it harder for returning citizens to vote.

The lack of progress on voting rights for former felons is particularly glaring. Florida has the worst voter disenfranchisement record in the country, with over 1.6 million Floridians ineligible to vote due to the racist Jim Crow-era laws that overly penalize those who have served their time.

After Amendment 4 passed in 2018 with one million more votes than DeSantis earned to win the governorship, the Republican-led Legislature circumvented the will of the voters by enacting a law that makes the repayment of fines, fees, and restitution a necessary condition to regaining the ability to vote.

A federal judge struck down that law as unconstitutional, but Governor DeSantis successfully appealed the decision; now the case is likely to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, as thousands of Floridians remain in indefinite limbo as to whether they will be allowed to exercise their vote this November in an election with perhaps the greatest stakes we’ve seen in our lifetimes. It’s important to note that the leadership demonstrated by other states on this issue (such as Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds' recent executive order) came with none of the ludicrous caveats we’ve seen in Florida.

Additionally, as we grapple with budget shortfalls spurred by COVID-19, the need to expand Medicaid has become more pressing. We are now only one of 12 states that refuses to expand Medicaid, despite knowing that expansion would extend health care to more than 800,000 Floridians who desperately need coverage, while filling budgetary gaps. We can recover billions of revenue lost during the pandemic and pay for Medicaid expansion by accepting the tax dollars we have already given to the federal government through our income taxes. Expanding Medicaid would also save Florida almost $200 million annually while bringing $14.3 billion in new federal funding over a 5-year period.

All of these harmful decisions circumvent the people’s will and threaten to make our state a backwater. It’s up to us as legislators to fulfill our duty to listen to the people who elected us and act accordingly. If some of the most conservative states in our country can find bipartisan consensus to restore the right to vote to returning citizens and expand health care for hardworking families, so, too, can Florida.

Fentrice Driskell, a Democrat, is the state representative for Florida House District 63, serving parts of north Hillsborough County.