March 18, 2023

Florida prosecutors just figured out how to nullify a key Republican vote suppression tool

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Three Florida prosecutors just unveiled a new plan to defeat the Republican Party’s newest poll tax and to allow convicted felons who have served their time to vote again.

Sunshine state voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4 on last year’s ballot. It amended the state constitution by removing a pre-Jim Crow-era provision that stripped felons of the right to vote for life unless they convinced the governor to act.

Immediately, the nonviolent ex-felons covered by Amendment 4 began registering to vote, which triggered a panic reaction by Florida Republicans, who wrote new legislation to deny the vote to anyone who couldn’t afford to repay oppressive fines imposed by the legislature and court costs. Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL) signed the poll tax into law in June.

Now, prosecutors in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and Hillsborough (which contains Tampa) counties have devised a method to defeat the poll tax. The Intercept reports:

“State attorneys in at least three Florida counties, covering major cities like Miami and Tampa, are looking into the possibility of modifying the sentences of some indigent people with felony records, potentially by allowing them to do community service rather than pay off often cumbersome court costs.”

“The state attorneys who are pursuing means to help move toward full implementation of Amendment 4 hail from Democratic counties, among the handful of Florida jurisdictions that went to Hillary Clinton in 2016.”

Up to 1.4 million voters in Florida are unable to register to vote because of their prior criminal convictions, representing one out of every fourteen men, women and children.

“Judges will be unclear on which fines to forgive, under what circumstances and for which cases,” says League of Women Voters Miami chapter president Marisol Zenteno who called the new Republican-backed law a real problem. “Creating this new hurdle to vote is going to keep disenfranchising people and goes against what 64.9% of Floridians voted for in 2018.”

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Instead of relying upon the Republican-controlled Florida legislature – which has 12 registered lobbyists per lawmaker – the prosecutors’ methods would instead rely on their relationship with the clerks of courts, the public defender’s offices, the Department of Corrections and the administrative offices of the courts.

The concept is to clear cases in a sweeping fashion and give a fresh start to nonviolent ex-felons who’ve cleaned up their lives, according to The Intercept:

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“It would include a streamlined case review system to help people who owe money they are unable to pay but are otherwise eligible, according to a draft her office shared with The Intercept.”

“In Hillsborough County, a metropolitan area that includes Tampa, State Attorney Andrew Warren intends to set up a “rocket docket” to modify the sentences en masse.”

While many call Florida’s former constitutional ban on ex-felons voting a Jim Crow-era law, it actually dates to the Reconstruction era after the end of the Civil War.

The racist goal of the 1968 Florida constitution was to nullify the voting power of black people and create a system of perpetual slavery as part of what is known as the “Black Codes.”

Republicans have continued the long tradition of open discrimination against black people to the present day. The most recent former Governor Rick Scott (R-FL), who led the largest Medicare fraud scam in US history to date, was particularly enthusiastic about suppressing the vote.

First, the GOP governor undid his predecessor’s efforts to clear the massive backlog of requests by rehabilitated people to vote.

Then, last year Scott threw a total hissy fit after a federal judge ordered him to amend his racist and arbitrary decisionmaking process for people seeking rights restoration.

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Overall, Scott restored the rights of twice as many white people as black people during his eight-year-long reign of terror and climate change denial.

Yet Republican party bigots elected the nativist Trump-supporting lapdog Scott to the Senate in 2018 anyway, with the help of a flawed ballot that cost the Democratic incumbent the race.

Floridians voted overwhelmingly to get rid of a racist stain on state politics, one that adversely impacts national politics by giving GOP candidates an edge. Unfortunately, the GOP has no respect for the ballot box and only the power that it gives.

Hopefully, these elected prosecutors – who are all Democrats – can reverse the state GOP’s discriminatory legislation with their latest maneuver.

Original reporting by Maryam Saleh at the Intercept. 

Grant Stern

Editor at Large

is the Executive Editor of Occupy Democrats and published author. His new Meet the Candidates 2020 book series is distributed by Simon and Schuster. He's also a mortgage broker, community activist and radio personality in Miami, Florida., as well as the producer of the Dworkin Report podcast. Grant is also an occasional contributor to Raw Story, Alternet, and the DC Report, an unpaid senior advisor to the Democratic Coalition, and a Director of Sunshine Agenda Inc. a government transparency nonprofit organization.

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