Florida: Why Republican Lawmakers are Defying — and Denying — the Voters

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In Florida’s November 2018 election, voters approved the following amendment to their state’s constitution:

“Except as provided in subsection (b) of this section, any disqualification from voting arising from a felony conviction shall terminate and voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation. (b) No person convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense shall be qualified to vote until restoration of civil rights.”

Seems pretty clear and concise, doesn’t it? If you’re a convicted felon who’s not a murderer or a rapist, once you’ve “paid your debt to society,” you get to vote just like any other citizen. Period.

But governor-elect Ron DeSantis announced that the measure would require “implementing legislation.”

CNN reports that two bills now working their way through Florida’s  Republican-dominated House and Senate would “implement” the amendment by levying unconstitutional poll taxes  —  court costs and incarceration fees,  running from a few hundred dollars to as high as tens of thousands of dollars  — on the newly eligible voters as a condition of registering and voting.

Jeff Brandes, vice chairman of the state Senate’s Criminal Justice committee, claims that the clear, concise, and unambiguous constitutional amendment, passed with the approval of nearly 65% of those voting, needs to be “further refined and honed.”

Why? Well …

In the 2016 presidential election, Republican Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by about 113,000 votes in Florida.

In 2018, governor DeSantis beat his Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum, by about 32,500 votes. Outgoing Republican governor Rick Scott beat the incumbent US Senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, by about 10,000 votes.

The passage of Amendment 4 potentially adds as many as 1.4 million voters to the state’s rolls.

Who are these new voters?

Proportionally, they are more likely to be African-American than white. As of 2010, according to a University of Georgia study, 8% of Americans were convicted felons, but 33% of African-American males fell into that category. And 20% of Florida’s African-American population had felony convictions on their records.

African-American voters overwhelmingly vote for the Democratic Party’s candidates for public office.

If Amendment 4 is implemented as clearly, concisely, and unambiguously written, Florida will cease to be America’s biggest presidential “swing state.” Its 29 electoral votes will move solidly into the Democratic column.

Creative gerrymandering might allow Republicans to maintain control of the state’s legislature and US House delegation, but the governor’s mansion and Florida’s two US Senate seats will go, and stay, blue.

Rather than work to avert this outcome by courting the African-American vote, Florida’s Republicans are falling back on a strategy their party has vigorously pursued nationwide for  decades: Find ways to keep African-Americans from voting.

But this time, Florida’s voters have spoken. Clearly. Concisely. Unambiguously. Don’t like it? Too bad. Republicans defy the people at their peril.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.