Last November, 65 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, a measure that restored voting rights to certain former felons (with the exception of murder and sex offenses) “after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.”
Yesterday, a Republican controlled legislative committee voted to enact a new impediment to Amendment 4 that would require former felons to have paid all of their court costs and fines prior to eligible to vote.
If passed and signed into law by Florida Governor Ron Desantis, the measure would swiftly become subjected to injunction proceedings in Federal Court due to possible violations of the 24th Amendment of the US Constitution that forbids the levying of poll taxes.
Yes, poll taxes, those relics from the Jim Crow era when southern legislatures, then under Democratic control, sought to prevent black voters from being able to use their majority in many areas to effect political change through the franchise.
(My Morehouse College classmate, Howard University Chemistry Professor John Harkless, posted on Facebook a copy of a poll tax receipt that his father was forced to pay in the 1960s in Mississippi)
Yesterday’s Florida vote is not race specific per se; according to the Sentencing Project, of the 1.6 million Florida voters who will be impacted Amendment 4, approximately 418,000 are black.
Even during the darkest days of the racist old poll taxes, poor voters of all races were at the whims of wealthy and middle class elite whites who wanted to ensure their own dominance in political, social, and economic matters. Still, the racial impact was far more profound and insidious–and only became outlawed after the Civil Rights Movement slowly moved national politicians in both parties to understand the moral depravity of such laws–and the potential political gain of providing the franchise to millions of black voters.
In Florida, one need not be a political scientist to understand the simple math that had even 10 percent of that number been registered and voted Democratic last year, Bill Nelson is still in the Senate, and Andrew Gillum is serving his first term as Florida’s governor.
Julie Ebenstein, a lawyer for the ACLU, called yesterday’s Florida legislative committee vote “an affront to Florida voters,” adding: “What the barriers proposed in this bill do is nearly guarantee that people will miss election after election …because they cannot afford to pay financial obligations.”
Indeed, and should Gov. Desantis make the unwise decision to sign such a measure into law, the ACLU, NAACP and other civil rights organizations will sue and declare the same a violation of the 24th Amendment, which provides in pertinent part: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay.”
(Tallahassee Pastor Gregory James, pictured above, has been a vocal proponent for voting rights in Florida and within the Trump White House)
Again, it is a shame that the desire for power and single party dominance in the south is so pronounced that some elected leaders would take to old-school pernicious tactics to stymie the will of the people. To that end, I call upon Gov. Desantis to condemn these attempts by his fellow Republicans to punish men and women who have served their debts to society and deserve to enjoy all of the benefits that they are entitled to by law–including the right to vote.