Florida wants to make ex-felons pay to vote

"They cannot legally affix a price tag to someone's right to vote."

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SOURCENationofChange
Image credit: Michael Fleshman/Flickr

Last November Florida voters voted in favor of Amendment 4, which would restore voting rights to the 1.5 million people in the state with felony convictions. Despite the fact that the groundbreaking measure passed with an overwhelming majority of 65 percent, Florida lawmakers are doing everything they can to destroy it.

In April the Florida House passed a bill that would require ex-felons to pay all fees – fines and fees to the courts – before they are allowed to vote. These limits would create massive inequality, requiring voters to pay what could be tens of thousands of dollars and therefore pricing some people out of the voting booth.

This week Governor Ron DeSantis signed the legislation.

Civil rights groups have expressed outrage over the bill, claiming that Republican lawmakers in the state are pushing for these new measures because they are afraid that most people with felony convictions in the state are liberal and will hurt their chances in the 2020 elections and beyond.

The American Civil Liberties Union, along with a group of voting rights advocates and felons, is suing Florida for what is calls “unconstitutional legislation.

“The new law creates two classes of returning citizens: a group wealthy enough to afford their voting rights and another group who cannot afford to vote,” reports the ACLU. “But the right to vote should not come with a price tag. Florida’s new law is un-American and unconstitutional.”

In the past 20 years, Florida has drastically increased its monetary penalties on people in the criminal justice system. Dubbed “cash register justice” these “user-fees” and surcharges go to help close budget gaps in state politics. Since 1996 the state has added over 20 new categories of financial obligations while eliminating most exceptions. People that enter the system often come out of it with a record and a mountain of debt.

“Over a million Floridians were supposed to reclaim their place in the democratic process, but some politicians clearly feel threatened by greater voter participation,” said Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “They cannot legally affix a price tag to someone’s right to vote.”

Previous to Amendment 4, ex-felons had to appeal to the governor and his cabinet to restore their voting rights. Under Democratic governor Charlie Crist this meant restoring voting rights to 150,000 Floridians but under Republican Governor Rick Scott that number was just 3,000. The system disproportionally affects African Americans in Florida, with more than 20 percent of otherwise eligible African-American adults unable to vote.

Florida’s victory in November was hailed as a historic civil rights victory. Restoring voting rights to ex-felons has been a hot political topic. Recently Democratic presidential candidates were asked whether current or former prisoners should be allowed to vote. Senator Bernie Sanders responded that both people in prison and ex-felons should have the right. Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren have said they support voting rights for people that have been released from prison.

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