Voting rights in Florida: triumph and betrayal

Photo courtesy: Civil Rights

Florida’s quest for voting rights has been a rollercoaster, mixing moments of hope with harsh realities.

In 2018, voters celebrated Amendment 4, aiming to restore voting rights for 1.4 million citizens with felony convictions. However, the joy was short-lived as SB 7066 introduced a “pay-to-vote” hurdle, demanding full payment of legal obligations before restoration. Legal challenges followed, with the system declared unconstitutional but later reversed. As of 2023, the problematic system persists, keeping returning citizens disenfranchised
due to financial barriers.

Recent events, like the arrest of 69-year-old Tallahassee resident Marsha Ervin on felony voter fraud charges, highlight unintended consequences. Ervin’s case reflects a troubling pattern echoing historical voter suppression tactics.

Critics liken the financial requirement of a modern “poll tax,” disproportionately affecting impoverished communities. Florida leads in disenfranchising its citizens, with nearly 1.2 million unable to vote due to felony convictions. Black residents, arrested at five times the rate of their white counterparts, face a stark reality, constituting 48% of the state’s prison population in 2021 while representing only 14% of the overall population.

Returning citizens navigating legislation like SB 7066 face a double burden of completing sentences and paying fines, fees, and restitution, which is often an overwhelming financial challenge.

John Boyd Rivers, a 45-year-old mason, symbolizes the struggles in this web. Despite completing sentences, Rivers, like many, is ensnared in a system seemingly designed to perpetuate disenfranchisement. The aftermath of the 2020 election saw 41 returning citizens, including Rivers, arrested for voter fraud in Florida. Faced with apprehension, many chose plea deals. Rivers, in particular, experienced a verdict split: acquitted of registering while ineligible but convicted of intentional and fraudulent voting.

This legal entanglement, intensified by Governor Ron DeSantis and lawmakers, reflects a broader assault on voting rights since 2018. Funding for election crimes has increased, and laws criminalize voting, particularly for returning citizens and supporting organizations.

Florida’s legacy involves enduring patterns and practices that have historically restricted voting rights, particularly in the aftermath of the Civil War. These practices, embedded in policies and laws, have had a disproportionate impact on specific groups, notably affecting Black communities. In a modern context, this historical disenfranchisement manifests through rules like SB 7066. Despite the optimism surrounding the 2018 approval of Amendment 4, SB 7066 substantially altered its impact, demanding more than just sentence completion; it introduces a financially burdensome obligation.

As Rivers registered from jail, outdated materials contributed to flawed systems, issuing voter ID cards without eligibility checks. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition foresaw these issues, filing a lawsuit challenging the state’s failure to determine voter eligibility, mainly regarding financial obligations.

This legal battle addresses Governor DeSantis’ legal threats to prosecute citizens relying on voter information cards, imposing an unfair obstacle on the right to vote, and violating the US Constitution. Florida’s online voter verification system adds complexity, leaving individuals to guess eligibility and facing arrest if they think wrong.

The legal entanglement extends beyond Rivers and the FRRC’s lawsuit, with cases described as a “colossal waste of taxpayer dollars.” The heavy-handed approach, exemplified by Ronald Miller’s arrest, underscores Florida’s recent efforts to suppress voting, reminiscent of historical attempts to disenfranchise Black communities.

Florida’s ongoing battle for voting rights reflects a complex narrative of triumphs undermined by legislative hurdles and an intricate web of disenfranchisement.