There’s no other logical explanation for the effective poll tax that lawmakers recently passed.
Coral Nichols will be eligible to vote when she’s 190. That’s assuming the 40-year-old Floridian — who served five years in prison for fraud and embezzlement, followed by nearly 10 years on probation — is able to keep up with her $100 monthly restitution payments.
Jermaine Miller thought he had fully repaid the $223.80 he owed in restitution for a 2015 robbery and trespass conviction. In fact, he paid $18.20 more than that, but Florida says he still has a balance due of $1.11 because of a 4 percent surcharge on restitution payments. On top of that, Mr. Miller owes $1,221 in court costs and fines, which he doesn’t have the money to pay.
Ms. Nichols and Mr. Miller are two of more than 1.4 million Floridians with criminal records who have spent the last year Ping-Ponging between hope and despair over whether they can exercise their most fundamental constitutional right — the right to vote.
Last November, nearly two-thirds of the state’s voters approved Amendment 4, a ballot initiative that erased Florida’s 150-year ban on voting by people with felony convictions, except for those convicted of murder or sexual offenses. It was one of the nation’sbiggest expansions of voting rights in decades. Florida, which was one of just four states that imposed a lifetime voting ban, bars a higher percentage of its citizens from voting than any other state. The state also accounts for more than one in four citizens disenfranchised nationwide.
But Florida’s Republican lawmakers decided Amendment 4 was too much democracy for their taste. In June, after thousands of formerly incarcerated people — including Jermaine Miller — had registered to vote, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law passed on party lines that effectively reinstates the ban for most of them, and for hundreds of thousands more people who had not yet registered.
The law, which took effect July 1, requires people with a felony conviction to pay off all costs, fines, fees and any restitution arising from their conviction before they are eligible to register to vote.
As the lawmakers surely knew when they wrote the law, they would be re-disenfranchising a large number of people who just had their rights restored. Only about one in five Floridians with criminal records have fully paid their financial obligations, according to an estimate by an expert in voting and elections at the University of Florida, who analyzed data from 48 of Florida’s 67 counties. (The estimate is included in a brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which has joined with several other voting-rights groups in suing the state over the new law.) That number is no surprise: People convicted of crimes are more likely to be poor. Fines and fees can often run into the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, but for many, even a debt of a few hundred dollars is more than they can manage, a problem that’s compounded by the fact that it’s difficult to get a job when you have a criminal record. In other words, the state is telling people they’re too poor to vote.
This once was known as a poll tax, which Southern states like Florida used in the later 19th century and well into the 20th century to keep their newly freed but still impoverished black citizens from voting. Poll taxes were popular because they were effective. By 1940, only 3 percent of black people in Florida were registered to vote. The practice was finally banned in 1964, by the 24th Amendment.
There’s a good argument to be made that laws like Florida’s violate this amendment as well as other constitutional provisions, like the equal protection clause. The bottom line is that a person’s right to vote should not hinge on how much money he or she has.
Florida is a particularly egregious offender on this front, but the problem of disenfranchisement by poverty is widespread. Across the country, 10 million people owe a combined $50 billion in fines and fees related to criminal convictions, and 30 states either expressly or implicitly condition the restoration of the right to vote on payment of those obligations, according to a new report by the Campaign Legal Center and Georgetown Law’s Civil Rights Clinic.
In many cases, these fines and fees are not designed to punish but are rather meant to raise revenue to run the court system, as the Supreme Court pointed out this year in a case striking down excessive fines. An open secret in the legal system is that most of these payments will never be collected. In Florida alone, courts assessed more than $1 billion in fines and fees between 2013 and 2018, even as they labeled more than 80 percent of that amount unlikely ever to be paid.
The burden of these fines and fees falls heavier on black voters, who are poorer; more likely to be unemployed; and more likely to be arrested, charged and convicted. Before voters approved Amendment 4, one in five black Floridians of voting age were barred from voting because of a criminal conviction — twice the rate of whites.
Florida Republicans insist that their new law is simply expressing the will of the voters, because the amendment allowed for restoration of voting rights only “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” And the law provides alternatives for people who can’t pay, including community service.
Don’t fall for these arguments. First, it seems clear what voters intended when they came out overwhelmingly in favor of Amendment 4: The purpose of the measure was to reintegrate formerly incarcerated people into society, not to throw up a new hurdle that most of them cannot clear. And alternatives like community service are at the discretion of the courts, which rarely grant them.
Also, because Florida keeps no centralized statewide database of legal debt, potential voters are left largely on their own to determine what they owe and whether they might be breaking the law by trying to register.
Finally, it’s hard to understand how these fines and fees can be considered part of a person’s sentence. When people finish their probation or parole, their fines and fees are usually converted to a civil lien or judgment — meaning they are treated like basically any other debt. Imagine if you weren’t allowed to get your college diploma until you’d paid off your student loans.
The effects of this law go beyond the harm done to individual voters. Florida is one of the most politically competitive states in the country, which means even small changes in the electorate can make a big difference. In the 2018 midterms, 8.3 million Floridians voted; the two biggest races, for governor and senator, were decided by 34,000 and 10,000 votes, respectively. And who could forget the 2000 presidential election, decided by 537 votes statewide, even as 12,000 Floridians were mistakenly targeted for removal from voter rolls because they were believed to have felony records.
The overwhelming majority of Americans see felon disenfranchisement as the cruel, pointless and counterproductive punishment that it is. It serves no purpose other than to prevent millions of Americans from more fully participating in society. That’s why many states have loosened or gotten rid of their felon disenfranchisement laws in recent years. Vermont and Maine have gone even further, allowing people in prison to vote — as is the case in most European countries. Last time we checked, all are still functioning democracies.
Even if Florida’s new law is ultimately struck down in the courts — as it should be — it has already achieved a key goal of its Republican sponsors, which is to confuse and discourage those potential voters who are just finding their way back to society — and who, not incidentally, are more likely to vote Democratic. After all, no one wants to make a mistake and wind up like Crystal Mason, the Texas woman who was sentenced to five years in prison for voting when she didn’t realize she wasn’t allowed to.
The same impetus is behind voter-identification laws passed by Republican-led legislatures as well as the Trump administration’s effort to get a citizenship question on the 2020 census. The success of these measures is not necessarily in their implementation, but in driving down turnout among likely Democratic voters.
Florida Republicans, like their counterparts in other states and in Washington, D.C., are becoming increasingly comfortable with the perks of minority rule, like the ability to disregard what the majority of voters demand. They appear to know that when you can’t win on your ideas, you win by undermining democracy.