Ron DeSantis
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

One of the most significant breakthroughs of the 2018 midterm elections was the fact that Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment granting ex-felons the right to vote “after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” Prior to that, Florida was one of only four states in the country that permanently banned former felons from voting. It has been estimated that the amendment could add 1.5 million voters to the rolls.

But just as we’ve seen in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Utah, Republicans who control the Florida state legislature are attempting to subvert the will of the voters.

On Tuesday, a Republican-controlled committee passed a measure that would require felons to pay back all court fees and fines — even if they are slowly paying those costs back in a court-approved payment plan, for instance — before they can register to vote.

The bill has the support of Republicans in both the House and Senate, as well as Governor Ron DeSantis. So it is likely to pass.

It is important to keep in mind what these Republicans are talking about when they refer to “court fees and fines.” It isn’t limited to restitution offenders are required to pay to their victims. As in most areas of abuse in the criminal justice system, Florida is a leader when it comes to imposing fees and fines on offenders.

The Brennan Center for Justice has documented some of those abuses. For example, they reported on “The Hidden Cost of Florida’s Criminal Justice Fees.”

In this report, we focus on Florida, a state that relies so heavily on fees to fund its courts that observers have coined a term for it – “cash register justice.” Since 1996, Florida added more than 20 new categories of financial obligations for criminal defendants and, at the same time, eliminated most exemptions for those who cannot pay.

The report goes on to note that these court fees create a self-perpetuating cycle of debt that in some counties leads to a new form of debtors’ prison.

In addition to court fees, a growing practice in the criminal justice system is to charge inmates and parolees for the “services” they receive.

In the last few decades, additional fees have proliferated, such as charges for police transport, case filing, felony surcharges, electronic monitoring, drug testing, and sex offender registration.

In Florida, prisons are even allowed to charge inmates for the cost of their incarceration at $50 a day.

Given all of that, it isn’t difficult to imagine that ex-felons in Florida could be straddled with a lifetime of debt, even after they have served their time and/or completed probation. So the Republicans have come up with a plan that pretty much nullifies the intent of the voters in their state.

The reason this is such a big deal is that, even amidst all of the chatter about Rust Belt vs. Sun Belt, Florida remains the “swingiest” of swing states. The path to winning the White House is an arduous uphill climb for the party that loses the sunshine state. As Republicans attempt to stop ex-felons from voting, Andrew Gillum is about to announce the launch of a major voter registration drive.

The former Tallahassee mayor and Democratic nominee for governor is expected to formally announce the effort today at a speech in Miami Gardens. One of the groups working with Gillum — Bring it Home Florida, named after his signature campaign phrase — was registered last week by his supporters with the state election division overseeing third-party voter registration organizations…

“In this period of time, whatever resources that I raise and time and energy I spend in this state is going to be around voter registration and deep-level engagement, so that when we have a nominee, we have an apparatus we can turn on,” Gillum said in January.

When it comes to the most recent attempt to stop ex-felons from being able to vote, Gillum is on it.

As Republicans do everything in their power to suppress the vote, Democrats are fortunate to have talent like Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum working at the local level to take on the fight for voters’ rights.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.