Florida's Governor Limits the Voting Rights of Former Felons

The legislation, which disproportionately affects black voters, will prevent hundreds of thousands of citizens from voting.
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Lance Wissinger (left) and Neil Volz shake hands after turning in their voter registration forms at the Lee County Supervisor of Elections office on January 8th, 2019, in Fort Myers, Florida. Wissinger and Volz, both with felony records, became able to vote for the first time after a new constitutional amendment took effect.

Lance Wissinger (left) and Neil Volz shake hands after turning in their voter registration forms at the Lee County Supervisor of Elections office on January 8th, 2019, in Fort Myers, Florida. Wissinger and Volz, both with felony records, became able to vote for the first time after a new constitutional amendment took effect.

Late on Friday evening, just before a legislative deadline, Florida's Republican governor signed a controversial bill that will prevent hundreds of thousands of people who have served time in prison from voting. The legislation directly conflicts with Amendment 4, a ballot measure Florida voters overwhelming approved last November that returned voting rights to Florida citizens who had been convicted of felonies and finished serving their sentences.

Civil rights advocates had hailed Amendment 4 as the solution to Jim Crow-era restrictions on felons voting that were originally designed to disenfranchise black people: In Florida, one in five black residents was ineligible to vote last year.

Over the weekend, many of those same advocates were dismayed to see Governor Ron DeSantis sign the bill, which prevents newly enfranchised felons from voting until they pay off any court-related bills they might have from their convictions. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida promptly sued DeSantis, and the organization's state executive director called the bill "a poll tax." The legislation is expected to prevent hundreds of thousands of people, who are still paying off fees and restitution, from voting.

Amendment 4 was expected to return the right to vote to 1.4 million people—the largest group of people enfranchised since the United States passed the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote.

Some predicted that allowing more Florida citizens to vote would give Democrats an edge in future elections. As Max Ufberg wrote for Pacific Standard:

A study published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in 2014 found that, in New York, New Mexico, and North Carolina, felons favored the Democratic Party. In New York, some 62 percent were registered Democrats, compared to 9 percent who registered Republican; in New Mexico, 52 percent were Democrats, while about 10 percent were Republicans; and about 54 percent were Democrats in North Carolina, compared to the roughly 10 percent who were Republicans.

What's more, experts have long asserted that the state's draconian voting policy for felons disproportionately affects African Americans and Hispanic Americans. A 2016 report from the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group, found that over 23 percent of African Americans in Florida were unable to vote due to a felony conviction, despite the fact that the majority had been released from prison. Nationally, African Americans and Hispanic Americans overwhelmingly vote Democrat (though most polling is conducted in presidential elections).

Because of the possible advantage Amendment 4 could give Democrats in the state, some have accused Florida Republicans—who control both the governor's mansion and the statehouse—of attempting to prevent the enfranchisement of former felons in order to increase Republicans' own electoral chances.

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