Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said on Tuesday that he would sign a new law that will grant voting rights to formerly incarcerated people only if they’ve fulfilled all the financial obligations included in their sentences, according to CBS Miami. Critics of the legislation are calling the law a poll tax.
“I’ll sign it,” DeSantis told reporters.
The law, crafted by the state Legislature, unnecessarily meddles in an amendment to the state constitution passed by ballot measure last November that was meant to re-enfranchise 1.4 million former prisoners convicted of felonies.
“The [constitutional] amendment says, if you read it, you have to complete your sentence,” DeSantis told reporters. “And I think most people understand you can be sentenced to jail, probation, restoration if you harm someone. You can be sentenced with a fine. People that bilk people out of money, sometimes that is an appropriate sentence. That’s what the constitutional provision said. I think the Legislature just implemented that as it’s written.”
Amendment 4, as the measure is known, stated that voting rights would be restored to those “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.” Financial obligations weren’t mentioned. The amendment also excluded those “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”
As a voter suppression tactic, rewriting the amendment has worked wonders. Limiting re-enfranchisement to those who have repaid financial obligations could keep as between half a million and 1.1 million former prisoners from voting, according to Slate, which would leaving only a few hundred thousand able to benefit from the amendment.
It’s easy to understand why this amendment is seen as a threat by Republicans. Florida’s prisons overwhelmingly incarcerate black people, meaning the 1.4 million people whose voting rights could be restored by the amendment will most likely vote for Democrats. And in a state that often plays a huge role in presidential elections, voting rights in Florida are a national concern.
“Politicians this session disregarded the will of over 5 million Florida voters who supported Amendment 4 when they passed legislation that restricts the right to vote based on who can afford to pay,” Kirk Bailey, political director of the ACLU Florida, told CBS. The ACLU says it is considering legal options for challenging the legislation.
DeSantis disagreed with this characterization.
“The idea that paying restitution to someone is the equivalent to a tax is totally wrong,” DeSantis told reporters. “The only reason you’re paying restitution is because you were convicted of a felony.”
DeSantis’ seemingly matter-of-fact statement about paying fines ignores the reality that most people convicted to crimes, predominantly people of color, are largely unable to pay back fines imposed by them in sentencing. And everyone knows this.
Only 19 percent of the $1 billion in fines that Florida courts levied between 2013 and 2018 were ever paid back, according to WLRN. The likelihood of getting people to back these fines is even lower when you consider how many former prisoners struggle to find work after they’re released from prison. Making matters worse, in Florida, fines that are not paid within 90 days can be referred to debt collectors, who can add an astonishing surcharge of 40 percent to the bill.
DeSantis and Republican legislators may say that their objections to Amendment 4 are about making sure formerly incarcerated people pay their debt to society, but it’s obvious what’s really going on. This is a convenient way for Florida Republicans to justify undemocratically maintaining their dominance in a state through racist voter suppression.