As we head into a contentious presidential election, Florida finds itself in a decisive position in the electoral landscape. If Trump is unable to win Florida next week, his chances at a second term in office are abysmal. However, working in Trump’s favor are particularly brutal voter suppression measures like the denial of the right to vote to former felons.
In November 2018, over 64% of Floridians voted in favor of an amendment to restore voting rights to millions of former felons who had finished their sentences, including parole, probation, and time served.
It was a historic moment for voting rights, as Florida is only 1 of 4 states remaining that continues to suppress the voting rights of ex-felons. But the success of the fight for voter restoration was short lived.
As confusion set in over what “completing” a sentence actually meant, Republican lawmakers passed a bill in 2019 clarifying that in order to be eligible to vote, ex-felons had to have paid back all fees, fines, or restitutions. In a state where 3 in 4 people charged with felonies can’t afford a lawyer, and where people are charged fees for seeking a public defender and to cover the costs of their own prosecution, the bill caused hundreds of thousands of ex-felons in Florida to continue to remain ineligible to vote.
Approximately 35,000 ex-felons (of which 32,000 are Black) registered to vote after the landmark ruling in 2018, and none of them were notified of the changes following the passage of the bill. Furthermore, since there is no centralized way of tracking court fees and fines, figuring out who owes what can be a monumental task. One Hillsborough County Clerk employee claimed it took them 12 to 15 hours to find the fees owed by just one former felon.
Forcing voters to navigate a highly complicated and bureaucratic system to determine their eligibility will likely result in the intimidation of thousands of eligible voters. If any of these individuals head to the polls without knowing they’re no longer eligible, they face an additional felony charge and up to 5 years in prison.
The bill was a direct attack on the poor and of people of color, and not a single Florida Democrat attempted to oppose its passage. While the bill was overturned in a lower court, it was eventually upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, of which five judges are Trump appointees, and will likely remain upheld leading up to the November 3rd election. In fact, in another blow to the disenfranchised, Florida’s secretary of state recently announced that voters with outstanding court fees will be flagged and outright removed from voter rolls.
Not only are the voting rights of thousands of ex-felons at stake, but the state of Florida is essentially silencing the 5.1 million working people who voted in favor of voter restoration. The question of voting eligibility for former felons could contribute to an already chaotic and volatile debate over Florida’s election results.
Racist History of Voter Suppression
Voter suppression in America has a long and racist history, from Florida and Georgia to Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. Following the abolition of slavery, many Southern states were forced to grant voting rights to newly freed slaves. In response, many states, including Florida, enacted laws that disenfranchised people charged with felony crimes. Then in 1885, Florida expanded felony offenses to include minor crimes such as petty theft and vagrancy. By the late 1800’s, 90 percent of felony arrests in Florida were Black men.
As the years passed, Black incarceration continued to rise, and ultimately skyrocketed in the 1980’s and 1990’s following the racist and bipartisan “War on Drugs.” The 1994 Crime Bill, seen as a major contributor to the over-policing of Black and Brown communities, was largely written and spearheaded by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden when he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. By 2010, 19% of Black people in Florida were disenfranchised ex-felons. Today, 1 in 5 people in Florida charged with a felony are Black, and 50% of the total U.S. population of disenfranchised former felons live in Florida.
The struggle for democratic and voting rights of the descendants of enslaved Africans has been, and remains, a constant struggle for the black working class and poor. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a major victory. But this gain has been under relentless attack, especially from the right. From the constitutional crisis of the 2000 presidential election to the 2018 midterm elections and the scandals surrounding the gubernatorial races in Georgia and Florida, it is clear how the black franchise is being targeted.
The seeds of the current escalation of voter suppression are rooted in the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. In 2013 the Supreme Court struck down clause 4 of the act, which required states with a known history of racism and voter suppression to receive permission from the federal courts before changing their voting laws. The decision by the Supreme Court reinforced various forms of voter suppression, including voter purging, voter-ID laws, and changing polling locations, already well underway in a number of states by the Republicans. The Democrats have done little to oppose this, despite rhetorically speaking for voting rights. On top of this, gerrymandering has been used to reduce the impact of the black vote and the urban vote generally.
What Is To Be Done?
Cash bail and punitive court fees are nothing more than attacks on working people and the poor, and should be abolished outright. All individuals serving time for minor, nonviolent offenses should be released immediately, and money used from the defunding of the police should be used to build permanently affordable social housing, to fund a green jobs program, and to expand social services as a means of facilitating the reintegration of formerly incarcerated people back into society.
As Election Day looms, we should remember that in 2000, Florida was decided by just 537 votes and will play a key role in deciding the 2020 presidency. If the election results in Florida are contested and Trump threatens to steal the state’s electors, we will need a mass movement to demand every vote is counted. The Democrats cannot be relied on to defend our rights. Working people of all backgrounds will have to lead this important fight.
As socialists, we demand the requirement of ex-felons to pay off court fees be overturned, and all current and formerly incarcerated people be immediately given the right to vote. A mass movement is urgently needed to defend these democratic rights in the upcoming election and beyond. We also urgently need to build a worker’s party independent of the two parties of Wall Street. We encourage activists and working people across the country to break from the Democratic Party and join the movement for a socialist world.