After Floridians approved an initiative to restore voting rights to approximately 1.4 million people with felony convictions, Republican lawmakers immediately moved to sabotage the historic effort. The GOP-controlled legislature passed a law along party lines that effectively required a poll tax from a majority of those poised to regain their right to vote. The GOP’s brazenly partisan measure, however, appears to be backfiring. Democratic counties are taking advantage of a compromise buried in the statute to give residents their voting rights. Meanwhile, Republican counties are taking a hard line against suffrage—meaning a substantial majority of Floridians who do manage to register to vote are likely to be Democrats.
For more than a year, Florida’s politicians have been embroiled in a fight over Amendment 4, which 65 percent of Florida voters approved in 2018. Amendment 4 abolished a Jim Crow era law that permanently stripped the right to vote from anyone convicted of a felony. But Florida Republicans quickly kneecapped it, passing a bill that forced individuals to pay all fines and fees associated with their sentences before regaining their voting rights. This legislative assault on Amendment 4 threatened to take away the franchise from more than 1.1 million Floridians; the state is a pioneer of cash register justice, imposing a mind-boggling array of “user fees” on defendants to finance its criminal justice system.
Following immense backlash from Democrats and civil rights advocates, though, legislators added a conciliatory section to their bill. It allowed courts to modify “the original sentencing order to no longer require completion” of the initial sentence. In other words, courts can waive fines and fees imposed as part of a sentence. By doing so, courts can clear the way for former felons to complete their sentences and immediately become eligible to vote.
To implement this section, Florida’s four most populous counties created “rocket dockets” to waive fines and fees en masse. Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Hillsborough—which, together, make up more than a third of the state’s population—launched programs to identify individuals who owe fines and fees and fast-track their cases to the courts. A judge then waives their financial obligations (except restitution to victims) and provides them with a court order declaring their sentences complete. This order reestablishes their right to vote. Courts, prosecutors, and public defenders all support these programs, and celebrity activist John Legend helped to publicize them by sitting in on a “rocket docket” session. Local officials provide individuals with voter registration forms as soon as their fines and fees are waived.
As WLRN pointed out on Sunday, these four counties’ swift action raises the possibility that Republicans’ plan to undercut Amendment 4 may backfire. There is little doubt that GOP legislators opposed the amendment because they feared it would disproportionately enfranchise Democrats. But their bill has led to a bizarre system in which Democratic counties are reenfranchising their voters while Republican-majority counties are not. Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Hillsborough all overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016. They are Democratic strongholds in a state with notoriously close elections. In 2016, Trump beat Clinton by about 113,000 votes. Meanwhile, Miami-Dade hopes to grant about 150,000 former felons the right to vote. The reenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of voters in primarily Democratic counties may very well swing the 2020 election.
Trump probably needs to win Florida, with its 29 electoral votes, in order to win in November. That is why he has been relentlessly campaigning there and even made the state his legal home. But there are signs of trouble. Former Republican Gov. Rick Scott unseated Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson by just 10,333 votes out of 8.19 million despite dramatically outspending him. Since Trump took office, his approval rating in Florida has plummeted by 23 percentage points; in December, his net approval dipped underwater in the state.
Yet no Republican counties have initiated any kind of program to help voters take advantage of Amendment 4. As Kathryn DePalo-Gould, a political science professor at Florida International University, told WLRN, the effect of this asymmetry “could be dramatic,” since “some of these very, very red counties who had huge turnouts for Trump in 2016 could be missing out on some of these felons.”
A Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald analysis found that 52 percent of Floridians who lost their voting rights because of a felony conviction were Democrats. A third were independents, while just 14 percent were Republicans. In recent years, black voters were five times more likely to lose their voting rights than white voters; Democrats were three times more likely to lose their voting rights than Republicans. Overall, the majority of former felons in the state are white.
Given these odds, GOP-controlled counties will undoubtedly suppress the votes of some Democratic ex-felons within their borders. But they may well depress their own turnout numbers in a tight election year while their neighbors gain voting power.
In a better world, we would not view formerly incarcerated people in such starkly partisan terms. But that is not the world Republicans created when they mangled Amendment 4. Instead, they left ex-felons’ fundamental rights at the mercy of individual counties. And they did not, it seems, foresee the fact that this scheme might disenfranchise their own supporters.