Three years after the end of the Civil War, Florida, like other former Confederate states, began working to nullify the war’s outcome. In 1868, to gain reentry to the Union, the state had to adopt a new Constitution that accepted the end of slavery and adopted the 14th Amendment. Florida also had to register all eligible men, white and black, to vote.
But delegates tucked in measures that not only served to reverse black enfranchisement but even the abolition of slavery in Florida: felony disenfranchisement and vagrancy laws. Florida, in a maneuver replicated throughout the South, created a legal category of people who could be denied political and economic rights—and then made sure that as many African Americans as possible were crammed into that category.
Just before the 2018 midterm elections, the Florida Policy Institute took stock of what these counter-Reconstruction laws wrought:
“Felony disenfranchisement laws, coupled with so-called “vagrancy” laws, were intended to permanently disenfranchise Black people in Florida. Vagrancy laws punished Black people for being unemployed. If convicted, they would be “lent” to farmers to work for free for one year — a return to slavery, if not in name then in deed. One of the legal descendants of Florida’s vagrancy laws is third degree theft. Florida’s low threshold for grand theft in the third degree — a mere $300 — is the lowest by far of any southern state, and in practice contributes to the large number of disenfranchised Floridians (1.3 million in 2018). African Americans are disproportionately impacted; one in five African American citizens in the state cannot vote due to felony disenfranchisement.”
In 2018, after years of the Republican-dominated state legislature’s resistance to the idea, Floridians included a referendum measure, Amendment 4, in the statewide midterm ballot that would automatically restore voting rights to returning citizens (except those convicted of murder and sexual offenses). Florida’s public approved the measure, with an emphatic sixty-five percent majority. In fact, Amendment 4 received more “yes” votes (5.1 million) than any single candidate in November, reported the New York Times.
The enthusiasm for restoring voting rights, however, did not translate into disempowering the political party that ruthlessly curtails them. And now, in an echo of the past, the GOP legislature is working to reverse this most recent reconstruction of civil rights. On Friday, the legislature passed a bill that would require ex-felons to “fully pay back fines and fees to the courts before they could vote,” the Times reported. “The new limits would require potential new voters to settle what may be tens of thousands of dollars in financial obligations to the courts, effectively pricing some people out of the ballot box.” The bill is now on the desk of Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who has one week to sign or veto it.
Let’s call this bill what it is: a poll tax. Let’s see the GOP for what it is: a political party that would not win elections without resorting to the filthiest tactics. And a party whose only claim to Abraham Lincoln is its determination to make his cause the lost cause.