By: Shawn Syed
When Florida Amendment 4 passed by ballot initiative on November 6, 2018, voting rights advocates rejoiced. A hard-fought battle resulted in Floridians approving the measure with 64.55% of voters in favor of the Amendment. Amendment 4, or the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, was designed to automatically restore the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions upon completion of their sentences. The Amendment excluded those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses. The battle for felon re-enfranchisement in Florida did not start with Amendment 4. Unfortunately, it also did not end with Amendment 4.
The issue of felon disenfranchisement started in 1838 when Florida’s state constitution was ratified. The original state constitution included a provision that stated the General Assembly shall make laws to exclude those convicted of bribery, perjury, forgery, or other high crime, or misdemeanor from office and from voting. In 1868, Florida overhauled much of its constitution but only had a minor tweak for its felon voting laws. The rewrite explicitly put the word “felony” in a laundry list of descriptions for people who would be excluded from voting.
There were no recorded reform efforts and a minor change to the constitution simplified the law in 1968. In 1974, Florida faced its first real reform effort. The Florida legislature passed the Correctional Reform Act, which would have automatically restored voting rights of ex-felons who completed their sentences. The Florida Supreme Court denied this portion of the bill as an unconstitutional usurpation of the governor’s power to restore civil rights. Governor Reubin Askew won this tug of war and in the process halted the effort to give voting rights back to ex-felons who served their sentences.
The Brennan Center for Justice joined the fight for re-enfranchisement in the case of Johnson v. Bush. This 2000 class action, with a class of over 600,000, challenged Florida’s permanent disenfranchisement for those with prior felony convictions. The case ultimately found its way to the en banc panel for the Eleventh Circuit. The 2005 panel upheld the voting ban. Despite appeal efforts, the Supreme Court denied a cert petition.
Governor Charlie Crist took steps towards ex-felon re-enfranchisement, but Governor Rick Scott reversed Crist’s attempts. Scott also threw in a bonus penalty by adding a five-year waiting period before an ex-felon could apply for voting reinstatement. This was the state of affairs before Desmond Meade took the baton.
Desmond Meade describes himself as a returning citizen. Colloquially, he is a former felon. After spending time in prison, Meade found his way to the president’s chair at the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Meade spearheaded the campaign for Amendment 4. The groups Meade worked with estimated that 1.4 million Floridians with past felony convictions would be able to have their voice heard through the ballot box. Other organizations had the number as high as 1.6 million. 1.6 million people is over 10% of the entire population of Florida. Meade returned to society after incarceration, homelessness, drug addiction, and depression to earn a law degree and a spot in history.
Yet, Meade’s efforts are still being pushed against. On March 19, a Florida House panel approved a bill that has been described as a poll tax. The phrase “poll tax” elicits a visceral response from election law scholars. That is because on the first days of learning about election law, one learns that poll taxes were outlawed by the 24th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Poll taxes have a deep history stooped in racism, bigotry, and suppression.
The March 19 bill would require a person to pay all outstanding court fees and costs arising from prior convictions before being re-enfranchised. Technically speaking, supporters of this measure claim this just defines “completion” of a sentence. Activist stories show what this House measure would mean. One woman pays $100 a month toward her restitution fee. She is on pace to pay off her $190,000 restitution in 190 years. Another woman owes $59 million in restitution. These women would never be able to vote under Amendment 4 because of the Florida House’s bill.
The fight for ex-felon re-enfranchisement in Florida is not yet over. Leaps and bounds have been made, but the finish line has not yet been crossed. It may still take time for the 5,148,926 people who voted “yes” for Florida Amendment 4 to have their voice heard.