In 2021, Florida lags behind the majority of other states in voter enfranchisement. As a result of the current law requiring that felons pay back all outstanding fines and fees tied to their sentences, almost 900,000 Floridian ex-felons cannot show up to the polls. To increase felon voter turnout, promote greater reintegration of felons into Floridian society and create a more practical re-enfranchisement process, Florida needs to re-examine and remove its discriminatory “poll tax” policy against felons.
In November 2018, Floridians voted in favor of Amendment 4, which would have re-enfranchised most felons after completing their sentences regardless of outstanding fines and fees. In 2019, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle further ruled it unconstitutional to require felons to pay all their legal financial obligations (LFOs) before they are eligible to vote, as it resembles an unconstitutional pay-to-vote system. These were two monumental steps in the right direction for voting rights activists. In 2020, however, in a 6-4 decision, The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta reversed Hinkle’s ruling; today, all felons are still required to pay back all their dues in order to vote.
Almost a year later, the effects of the reversal are disastrous. Rather than creating a system where felons repay their debt to society for their crimes, fines and fees act essentially as an obstructive poll tax. Only an estimated 50,000 felons in the last two years have actually registered to vote.
What’s more, Florida’s bureaucracy is ill-equipped to provide the relevant information to felons who want to know what fines and fees they have outstanding. The state of Florida does not track its LFOs, so most felons are left uncertain of their path to voting eligibility. Misinformation and inaccessibility were not part of Florida’s felons’ sentences. Floridian felons have a right to be apprised of their progression out of the penal system. Instead of incentivizing felons to complete all their dues in the hopes of voting, the poll tax bars most felons from voting.
Proponents of Florida’s current law argue that paying back fines and fees is part of felons’ retribution to the society they have wronged through their crime. But rather than reaffirming one’s responsibility to their community, Florida’s pay-to-vote system further separates felons from enfranchised civil society. According to research, the right to vote is an important part of restoring felons’ civic identity and improving rehabilitation and rescindment. A Florida government study found that felons without the right to vote were three times more likely to return to prison than those with the right, suggesting a clear link between community engagement and ex-felon reform.
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of Florida’s felon voting laws is its disproportionate effects on African American felons, a pattern of disenfranchisement dating back to the days of Jim Crow laws. On the whole, at 10.43% of its population, Florida has more disenfranchised citizens than any other state. It would otherwise be shocking to know that 21.35% of Black Floridian voters can’t vote because of felony disenfranchisement as of 2016. And more recently, as of 2020, over one in seven African Americans in Florida cannot vote, which is more than twice the national average. Florida’s felon voting laws are a longstanding contributor to the racist disenfranchisement of Black voters. Far from coincidentally, this systemic underrepresentation gives white Republicans the upper hand in elections over minority Democrats.
Arizona’s voting rights policy is just one example of how Florida Democrats and Republicans could compromise on their voting law issues. In 2019, Arizona removed the requirement that felons must pay all outstanding fines and fees for first-time felons only. For Florida conservatives who fear that most felons are repeat offenders, gaining the right to vote only to go right back to prison, this policy would provide some relief. For left-wing voting rights activists that wish to see an expansion in Florida’s electorate, especially among Black voter, a policy like Arizona’s could be a good first step.
From 2018 to 2020, Florida took two steps forward and then one step back in terms of expanding the right to vote. The current policy will hit poor African-American felons the hardest while insulating conservative lawmakers from a massive potential voting bloc. Regardless of the debt we believe our felons owe us, Americans should not impose a financial cost on our most sacred political institution. For each citizen barred, we all become a little less free.
Alexis Hancz is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.