Florida Republicans, Voter Suppression & “The Poll Tax”

Author  Jeri Yonder

Tallahassee— The A.C.L.U., the Florida State Conference of Branches, Youth Units of the N.A.A.C.P. and the Brennan Center for Law at the N.Y.U. Law has filed suit against the Florida law that subverts the will of the voters by blocking the automatic restoration of voting rights for non-violent felons. 

Here’s why. In 2018, Floridians voted overwhelmingly to restore the voting rights of returning citizens to their communities. Amendment 4 received more votes than any candidate on the ballot. Despite this, Republicans have decided to impose what is called a “poll tax” on non-violent ex-felons, forcing them to pay all their fines before being eligible to vote. This we know will make it extremely difficult for them to exercise their right to vote, especially in the 2020 election.        

Critics say that while this form of voter suppression is not new in Florida, there was a bright spot in Florida history when Governor Charlie Crist implemented an executive order restoring the right of ex-felons to vote in 2007.  However, in 2011, Republican Governor Rick Scott took office and immediately rescinded Crist’s executive order. Under Crist, 155,000 ex-felons became voters.  Scott set up a cumbersome and expensive clemency process where only a few hundred ex-felons voting rights were restored each year, and only 3,200 during his eight years in office..     

Despite the backlash and legal questions surrounding the Republican bill aimed at dismantling Amendment 4, DeSantis signed the poll tax bill into law which could potentially block hundreds of thousands of people from participating in the 2020 election. Critics say it’s another voter suppression scheme reminiscent of the “poll tax” used to stop the poor and mainly African Americans from voting from 1877- 1966.

The overwhelming consensus is that Trump needs to win Florida to win re-election, and Republicans could not risk a wave of new voter participation.

“The Republicans believe in democracy when it benefits them.  We don’t believe you should stop people from voting because you don’t think they will vote for you. Those who have done their time and repaid their debt to society should not be silenced,” said Terrie Rizzo, Chair of the Florida Democratic Party.

“Politicians this session disregarded the will of over 5 million Florida voters who supported Amendment 4 when they passed legislation that restricts the right to vote based on who can afford to pay,” said Kirk Bailey, political director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.     

The A.C.L.U. filed suit immediately arguing that law would keep people from the ballot box and disregard the intent of Florida voters followed by the Florida N.A.A.C.P. The Florida Democratic Party continues to focus on engaging and registering new voters in 2019.

“We know Republicans are going to continue their long history of suppressing the vote in Florida, and we are going to do everything we can to fight against it - starting with registering voters and expanding the voter rolls,” Rizzo said. 

Desmond Meade, President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (F.R.R.C.) said he and his team are already working to help returning citizens pay court fines and fees. Donations have already reached nearly $100,000. The goal is to raise $3 million.

"We are excited to build on the success of Amendment 4, the largest expansion of democracy in 50 years, by registering eligible Florida voters and helping those who have not yet completed their sentences move forward with their lives,” Meade said in a statement.