While You Weren't Looking, Florida's Governor Introduced a Poll Tax

Julie Ebenstein is a senior staff attorney for the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, and Orion Danjuma is a staff attorney for the ACLU's Racial Justice Program

On November 6, 2018, nearly 65 percent of Florida voters—more than 5 million people—resoundingly approved Amendment 4, restoring voting rights to over a million of their fellow citizens. By passing Amendment 4, Floridians successfully ushered in the largest expansion of the electorate in nearly 50 years. The people of Florida did it on their own, using a constitutional ballot initiative, to finally achieve change where Florida politicians had failed.

Instead of celebrating this progress, Florida politicians are trying to destroy it. The Florida legislature passed, and on Friday the the Governor signed, unconstitutional legislation that requires people who are eligible to vote under Amendment 4 to pay the exorbitant court costs, fines, and fees levied against them at the time of their conviction, or lose their right to vote. In turn, the ACLU and partners filed a federal challenge seeking to block the law.

The new law creates two classes of returning citizens: a group wealthy enough to afford their voting rights and another group who cannot afford to vote. But the right to vote should not come with a price tag. Florida’s new law is un-American and unconstitutional. 

The law unconstitutionally conditions voting on whether a person can pay monetary penalties associated with their conviction.  This barrier to voting is particularly unjust because Florida, along with states across the country, has sharply increased monetary penalties on people in the criminal justice system in order to finance its basic government functions.  People often emerge from the system with not just a conviction but mountains of debt that they cannot hope to pay. The charges can include, for example, substantial debt imposed for being appointed a public defender—an assignment made precisely because a person cannot afford counsel.  The impacts are especially harsh for people of color given longstanding racial disparities in wealth and poverty. This system of “cash-register justice” places the greatest costs of funding the criminal justice system onto the backs of the people least able to shoulder the burden.  And now Florida politicians want to use these debilitating monetary penalties to prevent returning citizens from having any vote in changing that system. 

Losing the right to vote—a basic right of citizenship—is one of the many collateral consequences triggered by a felony conviction, and an unjust obstacle to returning citizens’ full participation after they complete their sentence. We are bringing this lawsuit on behalf of ten Floridians, all of whom have achieved a great deal since their conviction. 

Here are some of their stories:

Ms. Riddle has four children, twenty-four grandchildren, and eight great grandchildren. She dropped out of high school at sixteen, then went back to college at 52-years-old and earned a degree. She lost her right to vote before she turned eighteen, so Amendment 4 made her eligible to register to vote for the first time in her life. She fears that because of the new law, she will never be able to cast a ballot in Florida, where she has lived her entire life.

Mr. Mitchell’s enthusiasm for public service is inspiring; he founded and runs organizations to support returning citizens with one-stop access to housing, employment and treatment services information. He works as a peer support specialist and a mentor. And he registers others to vote even though he himself was ineligible to register until January 8, 2019. Like Ms. Riddle, Mr. Mitchell was convicted of a felony when he was a child; Florida took away his right to vote before he was even of eligible age.

Mr. Gruver and Mr. Wrench work to support other members of their community facing addiction. Mr. Gruver works at a homeless facility assisting residents to find treatment and housing. Mr. Wrench has been sober for over seven years and takes twelve step programs into prisons to support people with active addiction. 

Our democracy will be worse off if the Florida legislature is successful in its attempts to silence their voice in the democratic process. 

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