Aiming to mitigate the impact of a new felon enfranchisement measure, Republican lawmakers are turning to Jim Crow like policies.
Republicans typically don’t like taxes, unless they’re poll taxes. Last week a bill passed the Republican state house panel in Florida that would require previously incarcerated people to pay all outstanding fines and fees before they are allowed to vote, invoking for many voting rights advocates the specter of 20th century Jim Crow laws.
The provision has drawn condemnation both in and out of Florida with local legislator Adam Hattersley, decrying it as “blatantly unconstitutional”, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez skewering it as “a poll tax by another name.”
In a thread on Twitter, Daniel Nichanian, the editor of the criminal justice publication The Appeal, noted the new bill could prevent “hundreds of thousands” of people from voting and implied low-income people and people of color were at an additional risk given how “convictions disproportionately affects some communities.”
“Republicans in Florida will see the poor and people of color driven back off the voter rolls if it’s the last thing they do,” writer Luke O’Neill explained further on his blog Hell World. Spelling out how the new provision would impact former felons, O’Neal wrote “any balance on the costs of their incarceration or probation such as ankle monitoring bracelets and any of the other horrific indignities they were subjected to by the profit-making carceral state torture apparatus must be paid in full before they are granted the basic right of suffrage.”
In line with recent years efforts led by the Republican party, this new legislation would seek to reduce the portion of the electorate comprised of non-white voters. Similar voter suppression techniques like voter roll purges have become increasingly popular in recent years. In the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race, a comparable statewide voter suppression campaign drew national condemnation as hundreds of thousands of African-Americans were targeted through voter purge schemes.
This new voter fee bill moving through the Florida legislature sits at the center of two racially bias policies — revenue-generating criminal justice fees and targeted voter disenfranchisement. In 2015, the Justice Department’s inquiry into the Ferguson Police Department following the killing of Mike Brown revealed how many state and local governments use policing and arbitrary fee structures to raise funds from minority communities through the criminal justice system. Writing about how these expenses impact segregated populations in her book Carceral Capitalism, Jackie Wang notes, “You could also call these legal, financial obligations a racial surtax; it is a form of extraction that funds the very government activities that are engaged in expropriating from black residents.” Likewise, the new bill in Florida would marry this extractive government finance with more historical efforts to undermine suffrage amongst low-income people and people of color.
Since Donald Trump’s presidential election in 2016, Republican legislators across the country have redoubled efforts aimed at increasing the potency of primarily white electorates. Often these strategies have been premised on decreasing the number of people voting instead of campaigning to get more voters. Of all the examples of recent voter suppression schemes, perhaps most notorious occurred in North Carolina where courts found that voter ID laws targeted “African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Yet despite the resurgence of rampant voter suppression, the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Explaining the rationale for this decision; Chief Justice John Roberts wrote “Our country has changed,” and argued, “the conditions that originally justified the measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.”
Calling out this decision, many political scientists and voter rights activists deemed it nonsensical. Princeton professor Eddie Glaude Jr noted that “the Court was claiming that the problem the Voting Rights Act sought to resolve was, for the most part, settled. Meanwhile, state after state, many in the covered jurisdictions, passed restrictive voter-identification laws that disproportionately affected black voters.”
Aiming to remedy these renewed attacks on voting rights, several prominent Democratic politicians are now championing pro-democracy legislation. Earlier this month the House of Representatives passed the For The People Act which would create a national voting holiday called Election Day, automatically register citizens to vote, and restore voting rights for felons. Similarly, former Attorney General Eric Holder and former President Barack Obama have thrown their weight behind the National Democratic Redistricting Committee which has the goal of ending gerrymandered districts. And presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has even called for the end of the Electoral College, a system rooted in slavery and known to undermine the votes of minorities in populated areas.
If this new suite of efforts to increase electoral participation will be enough to curb suppression efforts in Florida is yet to be seen. Nationally, Democrats and activists have placed renewed efforts on expanding suffrage at the center of their political agenda with the House of Representatives making their voter expansion bill the first item that they introduced at the beginning of this legislative session. Whether these efforts are successful will help determine the legal fate not just of former felons in Florida, but of states fighting against voter discrimination across the country.
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