Democracy dies when government stops protecting every citizen’s right to vote. Death is quickened when government goes out of its way to strip voting rights from its most vulnerable and powerless constituents. This summer, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis(R) added to Florida and the GOP’s already-long list of attempted political homicides when he signed into law Senate Bill 7066 less than one year after voters passed Amendment 4 to their state’s constitution, which restored voting rights to more than 1 million Floridians with felony convictions after they completed their term of probation or imprisonment. Amendment 4 was the product of a grass-roots movement of pro-democracy advocates led by Desmond Meade, a once homeless and suicidal man who graduated law school and discovered he could not vote for his own wife – a candidate for the Florida legislature – because of his felony record. Not one to take the undermining of democracy lying down, Mr. Meade became president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which shepherded Amendment 4 to victory last November by 64% of the vote.
“In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for; as for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican.” – H.L. Mencken
Alas, the GOP simply could not abide the enfranchisement of over 1 million mostly poor people and people of color. On May 3, the very last day of its 2019 session, the Florida legislature passed SB 7066 along party lines. By requiring felons to first pay off all court-ordered restitution and fines before receiving their right to vote back, the bill effectively overruled Amendment 4 and disenfranchised its beneficiaries before they could cast their first ballot. (Mr. Meade, being the all-around amazing human being he is, did not take this duplicity lying down. His Florida Rights Restoration Coalition has now shifted its focus to raising money to help returning Florida citizens pay off their fines and fees.)
To be fair, the GOP learned long ago that, at the end of the day, everything comes down to economics. Since the 1980s criminal justice financial obligations (CJFOs) – fines, fees, restitution, and other monetary sanctions defendants must pay – have been one of the invisible villains of mass incarceration. According to researchers Karin D. Martin, Sandra Susan Smith, and Wendy Still, the use of CJFOs dramatically expanded as state lawmakers grew more and more reluctant to raise taxes to pay for the exponential growth of the criminal justice system. Instead of requiring all taxpayers to pay for more lawyers, courts, guards, and prisons, legislators passed those costs on to system-involved people only.
Texas has 15 categories of court costs…and an additional 18 discretionary CJFOs that include fees for being committed or released from jail. In Washington state, a defendant with a single conviction is subjected to 24 fines and fees…Since 1996, Florida added more than 20 new categories of CJFOs and recently increased amounts of existing fees and surcharges in two consecutive years. In New York state — where the laws require 10 mandatory surcharges, 19 fees and six civil penalties ranging from $5 to $750 — lawmakers have repeatedly increased the amounts and numbers of fees and surcharges since the early 1990s…In 2009, North Carolina initiated two new fees — a $25 late fee for debtors making tardy payments and a $20 surcharge for those wishing to establish a payment plan for their CJFOs. North Carolina also increased fees for defendants who fail to appear in court and increased the costs associated with lab tests. Since 2010, 48 states have increased civil and criminal fees, a likely response to government coffers emptied by the effects of the Great Recession.”
According to Martin et al., today “10 million people owe more than $50 billion from contact with the criminal justice system.” Because returning felons have appalling education and unemployment rates, they are rarely able to pay back the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in CJFOs they owe. Thanks to Florida’s Senate Bill 7066, this enables the GOP to disenfranchise millions and subvert democracy in a way that would make Iosif Dzhugashvili giggle like a Georgian schoolboy.
Lest we in the Southwest start feeling morally superior, felon disenfranchisement in Arizona has been at least as effective in destroying the right to vote as it has in Florida. Arizona Revised Statute § 13-904 revokes all of a person’s civil rights the moment they are convicted of any felony, from possession of marijuana to capital murder. The ACLU estimates 221,170 Arizonans cannot vote because of a felony conviction. Only 20% of them are in prison, while about 53% of the disfranchised population – 116,717 people – have fully completed their sentences. These quarter of a million people are part of an escalating trend that closely mimics the explosive growth of mass incarceration over the last fifty years.
What should come as no surprise to anyone even remotely familiar with the racial crimes of mass incarceration is how felon disenfranchisement disproportionately falls on African-Americans and other people of color.
Make no mistake, felon disenfranchisement decides elections. In 2016, 4.25% of Arizonans were disenfranchised because of a felony conviction; only 3.5% of Arizonans swung our electoral college votes to Donald Trump. And of course there is fucking Florida, just in case we are still wondering what Senate Bill 7066 was really about.
“Honest elections are the foundation of representative government. We pledge to protect the voting rights of every citizen.” – Republican Party platform
In the age of Trump, when GOP doctrine insists climate change is a myth, the unemployment rate is negative two bazillion, and the only racism left in our country is the systemic oppression of white people, pointing out Republican hypocrisy is as original as a Jennifer Aniston rom-com (or this metaphor). Still, there remains something breathtaking about the likes of 7066. Its creation, advocacy, and passage resulted from the purest form of citizen democracy left in our country. The intent of its authors was to allow people to become full citizens after they served their sentence – to practice forgiveness, and welcome former sinners back into the community. Alas the Grand Old Party of Jesus and Reagan is having none of it. More citizens exercising their right to vote may mean they lose an election or two. Better to shred democracy instead.
– Joel Feinman