Amendment 4 and the vote was pretty simple | Column
That is, it was, until Republican leaders got involved, writes columnist Daniel Ruth.
Times Columnist Daniel Ruth.
Times Columnist Daniel Ruth. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Oct. 8, 2020

Tallahassee has been in hand-wringing harrumphing high dudgeon of late over the prospect that former convicted felons might possibly be able to cast a ballot in the November election.

This will never do. Once you start allowing convicted felons to commit democracy, where does it end? The next thing you know, all these felons might actually vote. And if they vote, they might not vote for the mandarins who populate the corridors of influence peddling in Tallahassee, which is an old Seminole word for: “Democracy? Such piffle!”

A 2018 Florida constitutional amendment to restore the voting rights of about 1.4 million former felons by an unheard of bipartisan 64 percent of the vote has been scuttled by a fretting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature, which has never met an expansion of voting rights they didn’t want to turn into something out of Birth of a Nation.

And thus, Florida Republicans offered up their salute to Mr. Jim Crow. But now, instead of requiring Black citizens to correctly guess how many jelly beans there are in a jar before they can vote, Florida’s former felons must figure out if and/or how much they must pay in fines, fees and restitution, even though there is no coherent data base in place to guide them before being issued a voter registration card.

And in Florida government coherence is a rarer event than a state legislator picking up his or her own bar tab. By the way, the governor and Republicans in the Florida Legislature did this with a straight face. Both of them.

Amendment 4 was a fairly straight forward proposition, restoring the voting rights of “… Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentences including parole and probation.” Those convicted of murder and/or sexual offenses would still be permanently barred from voting.

But Tallahassee, which is an old Seminole term for “Democracy! We don’t need no stinking democracy,” seized on the slightly ambiguous language to insist fees and fines, which average about $1,500 according to Desmond Meade, executive director of the Human Rights Restoration Coalition.

That barrier has been just enough to prevent about 770,000 former felons from regaining their franchise.

And this is where the governor and Legislature got their Bloombergs in a wad.

The former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been active in helping raise about $16 million to help pay off the felons' fees and fines.

But now, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody has asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the FBI and for all we know, the Visiting Nurse Association, to launch an investigation of Bloomberg, accusing the former mayor of attempting to buy votes.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis was especially faux indignant, accusing Bloomberg of using his vast wealth and power to “tilt” the November election.

Well, Duh!, of course Bloomberg is trying to tilt the election. But are his efforts any different from the plot by DeSantis, the attorney general, the chief financial officer and Republicans in the Florida Legislature from attempting to “tilt” the election by preventing people who have served their time, from reclaiming their civil rights as citizens?

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Nothing annoys grifting pols more when in the middle of a perfectly delightful voter suppression conspiracy some deep-pocketed swell comes along to suppress their suppression.

In classic Florida fashion, thousands of former felons have no way to determine if they even owe any money to the state, since every Florida county keeps its own records and in many cases the years and decades of old paperwork is stored somewhere that looks like something out of the final warehouse scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Perhaps nothing best illustrates the absurdity of the former felon voting story better than Desmond Meade’s recent appearance before the state clemency to ask for a pardon. A former felon himself, Meade did his time, emerged from prison, earned a law degree and has been named Floridian and Central Floridian of the Year, as well as Time Magazine’s 100 most influential People for 2019.

But feeling petty, oh so petty, DeSantis and Patronis denied Meade’s application. The man who led the effort to restore the voting rights of former felons just wasn’t rehabilitated enough.

Meade, who once lived on the dark side of life, went on to become a productive citizen. Days ago, Meade dropped off a $1.5 million check to Hillsborough County Clerk Pat Frank, to clear the fees and fines of some 800 former felons.

A cynic might suggest as far as the State of Florida is concerned, Meade has become a little too productive.