The Republican-controlled Legislature has rubber-stamped Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new congressional map for Florida, one that eliminates two districts held by Black representatives. This action is a stark reminder that this year’s midterm elections occur during a moment of existential peril for democracy.
A federal judge recently voiced concern about the siege on fundamental rights in explaining his decision to strike down provisions of Florida’s SB 90 legislation — another naked attempt to suppress the vote of Black Floridians.
Unfortunately, these aren’t the only recent examples of how discriminatory and antidemocratic tactics have permeated and distorted Florida’s electoral system. In 2018, more than 60 percent of Floridians voted for a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to people who had completed their sentences for most felony convictions. It was brilliant demonstration of the power that people hold to influence policy that directly impacts their communities. Amendment 4 undid Florida’s practice of permanently disenfranchising more than 1 million people who had been convicted of a felony crime and were back in their communities.
The potential racial justice implications of the ballot initiative are historic. Before Amendment 4, more than one in five of the Black voting-age population in Florida could not vote because of felony convictions. Of the 1.4 million returning citizens in Florida who stood to benefit from Amendment 4, therefore, a disproportionate number were Black people — a consequence of a criminal legal system that also arrests, prosecutes, convicts and imprisons people of color at disproportionately higher rates.
Only a few months later, however, the Florida Legislature responded to this historic measure by imposing an obstacle course to subvert the people’s will. Legislators passed SB 7066, which requires people with felony convictions to pay fines, fees, court costs and restitution — known as “legal financial obligations” — before they were allowed to vote. It has been described as nothing less than a rebranded version of Jim Crow. In fact, four judges on the 11th Circuit concluded that compliance with the law for those with newly restored rights was “sometimes easy, sometimes hard, sometimes impossible.”
Our legal challenge to the scheme extensively documented that SB 7066 would effectively deny re-enfranchised voters’ access to the ballot box. Despite the evidence of the outsized impact the measure would have on swaths of Black and other Floridians eager to vote, the majority of the 11th Circuit let it stand. The punitive law has since resulted in the prosecution of people entrapped by its provisions. More than two dozen people in Alachua County who participated in voter registration drives while they were in jail now face new felony charges for registering and voting in 2020 because they allegedly have outstanding legal financial obligations. Eligible Floridians may register and vote while in jail, and the registration drive was even conducted by local election officials.
But there is still no clear process for people to ascertain how much they owe — or if they owe anything at all. And many of these already inscrutable debts have continued to soar to exorbitant levels due to surcharges, interest rates and even collection fees as high as 40 percent.
The effective undermining of the full promise of Amendment 4 has caused the figurative and literal re-incarceration of people striving to become fully engaged citizens. It’s hard to calculate how many individual Floridians have been hamstrung by the undercutting of this groundbreaking ballot initiative. But having worked for and alongside many of them in their courageous journey to rebuild their lives and help eliminate voter discrimination, I can unequivocally say that there are very real people, as well as their families, who are grappling today with the consequences of this state-ordered cruelty.
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While legislative efforts to overrule the interest of the people go into overdrive — including through measures to limit accurate and inclusive conversations in the classroom and to make voting even less accessible following the 2020 elections — we must not lose sight of the many Americans still suffering harm from the multi-pronged war on democracy waged by extremists in positions of power.
Leah C. Aden is a Deputy Director of Litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.