Florida restored the vote to people with felony convictions. GOP lawmakers want to snatch it back

GOP lawmakers in Florida aren’t about to give up the fight to cripple democratic norms with a refreshed push for new legislation to strip ex-felons of their recently acquired voting rights.

There was overwhelming voter approval last November for a measure — known as Amendment 4 — to overhaul the state constitution. The referendum granted voting rights to more than a million former felons. But Republicans in both houses of the state legislature are pushing bills that would subvert the will of voters and force many newly-enfranchised Floridians off the rolls.

Prior to last year’s passage of Amendment 4, Florida’s constitution automatically stripped voting rights from people with felony convictions, based on law dating back to 1838, before the territory was a state. White lawmakers, fearful of the political potential of freed blacks in the state, updated the law during post-Civil War Reconstruction. In this way, the state was able to suppress generations of black and poor people from voting.

As recently as last year, Florida still operated under one of the largest-scale voter suppression laws in the nation. That essentially changed with passage of Amendment 4, restoring voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million people, most of whom were black and poor. Though they’re loath to say so, GOP lawmakers fear those new voters are likely to support Democratic candidates who have challenged GOP take-backs and championed the rights of ex-felons to vote.

While much of the outrage has been focused on the advancement of the House bill, a similar set of voter-rollbacks are under consideration in the GOP-led state Senate. Specifically, the House and Senate legislative packages mount a two-pronged attack on voting rights:

Under provisions in the Senate bill, the proposed law would change the legal definition of murder and sex crimes, two criminal categories excluded under Amendment 4. Arguing that the language of the voter-approved change wasn’t clearly stated, Republicans want to create new meanings for “murder” and “felony sexual offense” in ways that exceed commonly understood and accepted definitions.

For example, the Senate version of the bill redefines murder to include offenses such as unsuccessful attempts to kill, unintended killings committed in the course of another crime, and the death of an unborn child caused by injury to a pregnant woman.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican who helped draft the legislation, defended the change in murder definitions, arguing that “attempted murder” is essentially the same crime as if the victim actually was killed.  “Obviously murder—first degree, second degree—to me, that means attempted murder, because there’s intent,” Brandes said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.

But as bad as the Senate bill is, the House version is far worse. It redefines crimes more punitively and demands that ex-felons pay off all court fines and fees before they can register to vote — a move that anyone with an understanding of U.S. history should immediately recognize as a latter-day poll tax.

As University of South Florida professor Darryl Paulson, an expert on Florida and southern politics, recently noted in an op-ed on voting rights, Florida has a long and sordid history of using discriminatory tactics to restrict black and poor voters from participating in state decision making:

Florida was the first state in the nation to adopt a poll tax. In 1889 the Legislature adopted a $2 annual poll tax as a requirement for voting. On the surface, there was nothing discriminatory about the tax. Both whites and blacks had to pay it.

In reality, the legislators knew that the $2 tax would affect blacks more because they were so poor. Although some poor whites also were disfranchised, they could often find ways to circumvent the tax. Candidates often paid the cost to entice voters. Election officials frequently “overlooked” the tax for whites.

Kirk Bailey, political director of the Florida American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), made the same connection in a news release condemning the legislature’s attempt to reverse the wishes of the voters.

“This bill sets out to undermine the will of Florida voters by passing legislation that would severely restrict the right to vote for 1.4 million Floridians who just had their rights restored after passage of Amendment 4,” Bailey wrote. “It is legislative attempts like these that ultimately affect voter disillusionment and raising suspicion in the voting process in general.”


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