WASHINGTON — In November of 2018, Floridians passed Amendment 4 – giving 1.4 million people with past felony convictions the right to vote. Last week, the state’s lawmakers passed legislation to require they pay various fines and fees before having those rights restored, a move that has been criticized as a “poll tax” by critics of the legislation. The bill now heads to the governor who has signalled his support but has not yet signed it.
Now, as similar policy debates occur across the country in state houses, Congress, and on the 2020 campaign trail, voting rights advocates face an uncertain future.
Supporters of felony re-enfranchisement legislation continue to stress the significant restrictions that long-term criminal justice and voting rights laws have had particularly on African Americans.
According to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization, 1 in 13 African American adults are disenfranchised for a past felony charge, compared to 1 in every 56 non-black adults.
Christopher Uggen, a criminologist and professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota reaffirms this. “The disproportionate impact on communities of color helps make it an urgent civil rights movement today.”
If the bill passed in Florida is implemented, the ACLU says that about 40 percent of enfranchised ex-felons in Florida would no longer be eligible to register due to the costs.
Also, according to Julie Ebenstein, the Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, Florida does not have a “centralized system that tracks people post-sentence.”
“That could really have a chilling effect,” Ebenstein added.
Felony disenfranchisement laws change from state to state and often governor to governor.
Today, only Iowa and Kentucky have lifetime disenfranchisement laws in place. Iowa recently tried to change their law — with the support of Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds — but the proposal failed to advance out of the state Senate.
Legislation to ease voting restrictions has also been proposed in Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas, Connecticut, New Jersey, Minnesota, and California.
Federal legislation was also recently introduced that would allow former felons to vote in federal elections.
And the 2020 Democratic candidates are also starting to take public stances on the issue.
For example, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., has introduced The Next Step Act, a criminal justice bill that would allow people who were incarcerated to vote in federal elections.
And Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT., has also said he supports giving both current and formerly incarcerated felons the right to vote — a policy legal only in Vermont and Maine.
But Uggen said he expects candidates to pay more attention to the issue, especially since 82 percent of Democrats support it. “The question is how far they will go,” he said.