It’s being called a modern-day poll tax, and for good reason.
Last year, Florida voters overwhelmingly chose to restore voting rights to 1.5 million people who have felony convictions (for perspective, that’s about 7 percent of the entire state). At the time, the passage of Amendment 4 was viewed as an important step forward for a state that has been embroiled in all manner of voting controversies—from voter suppression to deep logistical flaws in its voting process—for at least two decades.
But a Republican-led legislature stymied that progress in May, mandating recently re-enfranchised Floridians pay off outstanding court fines, fees, and other “financial obligations”—such as civil court judgments—before they’re allowed to vote. Gov. Ron DeSantis, also a Republican, is expected to sign the bill into law.
“It’s blatantly unconstitutional as a poll tax,” Democratic Rep. Adam Hattersley told the Tampa Bay Times, referring to Jim Crow-era policies designed to keep black people and people of color out of the voting booth.
Statewide, courts in Florida assessed over a $1 billion in fines to people with felony convictions, between 2013 and 2018, according to WLRN, while Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers reported that, on average, only 19% of the money-owed was paid back each year during that time.
While the total sum owed is unavailable statewide, the total amount in felony fines owed in just three of the state’s 67 counties eclipses $1 billion.
There are myriad reasons why paying back court fines would be challenging for the formerly incarcerated. Prison time means time out of the workforce, and depending on how long a person was behind bars, they could be re-entering a world that functions much differently, technologically and socially, than the one they lived in before they sentenced. According to the Sun-Sentinel, the unemployment rate for people with felony convictions is 27 percent, For people of color and women, that number is even higher (black women who were incarcerated are unemployed at a rate of 43.6 percent).
Debt also accrues while someone is in prison or in jail; it’s not unusual for people with convictions to reenter society thousands of more dollars in debt.
The premise of a democracy is that if enough citizens want to change a law or effect policy, they have one key apparatus to do so: the voting booth. Floridians with convictions have no such voice, no such leverage, to weigh in on issues that disproportionately affect them, no real means to vote out the kinds of Republican legislators who passed this voter suppression bill.
In a country where money can buy the wealthy a different justice system than the one the poor have to navigate, Florida has effectively anchored the right to vote to 1.5 million people’s wallets.
As Sharon Bock, the Palm Beach County clerk and president of the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers, told the Sun-Sentinel, “people have actually been thrown in jail for their inability to pay a fine or fee. This is a constitutional issue at this point.”