Florida's Poll Tax Shows We've Ignored the Lessons of Jim Crow

Weekly Article
Eileen Salazar / Shutterstock.com
March 12, 2020

The 2020 election season is in full swing. As of publication, 24 states have held primaries or caucuses; voters in American Samoa and U.S. citizens living abroad have also voted, bringing the total number of ballots cast to just over 30 million. On the surface, that may seem like a lot—but turnout calculations show that a whopping three-quarters of the voting age population aren’t participating in the electoral process.

So why, amidst this low turnout, is the United States systemically disenfranchising populations of potential voters?

In four states that have already held primaries, felons lose the right to vote until the completion of their sentence, when they’re either permanently stripped of that right or required to shoulder some kind of administrative burden to regain it. (This is true of 11 states overall, which represent 19 percent of the U.S. population.) In 21 other states, voting rights are restored ‘automatically’—although relatively few former felons are informed of this, and many subsequently miss opportunities to register.

The impact of felony disenfranchisement is particularly salient in Florida’s primary, which takes place on Tuesday. In the 2018 midterm election, 64.5 percent of Florida voters cast ballots in support of Amendment 4, a state constitutional amendment aimed at restoring voting rights to former felons who satisfy the terms of their sentences. Six months later, the Florida legislature passed party-line bills requiring any and all financial obligations stemming from felony offenses to be paid off before the franchise can be restored. The legislation, signed as Senate Bill 7066 by Governor Ron DeSantis, was accompanied by a note to the Secretary of State describing Amendment 4 as “a mistake” and stipulating that the governor “would not want to compound that mistake by bestowing blanket benefits on violent offenders.”

Just like that, an effort to extend voting rights to more than one million disenfranchised citizens was rendered null.

SB 7066’s opponents have referred to it as a poll tax—and given the literal financial barriers that will stand between formerly incarcerated Floridians and the ballot box, it’s hard to argue with that assessment. The course of action chosen by Governor DeSantis and Florida Republicans revealed their reactionary hand, and it’s also introduced a broader question: By refusing to accept a popularly supported push for the largest expansion of the franchise in decades, has the Florida GOP shown a proclivity for gazing upon historic injustice—and learning absolutely nothing?

Things got better before they got worse

Prior to the Civil War, Black Americans faced a statutory barrier to voting. While those who were ‘free’ could vote in some states at various points in history, Southern states (where the bulk of the mostly-enslaved Black population was located) made it strictly illegal for them to vote.

This type of de jure disenfranchisement was brought to a rather effective end by Reconstruction and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. According to Bernard Fraga’s 2018 book The Turnout Gap, more than 80 percent of Black men were “voting eligible” by 1867, and two-thirds of eligible Black men voted in presidential and gubernatorial contests at the peak of Reconstruction. In 1880, Black turnout was estimated at 61 percent, while white turnout was close to 67 percent.

Unfortunately, this honeymoon period would quickly sour.

In former Confederate states, Black turnout plunged drastically, dropping from 61 percent in 1880 to just 2 percent in 1912. Gains in congressional representation were also largely undone: No more than three Black Americans would sit in Congress together after 1879 (this would remain true until 1957). This reversion coincided with a dramatic rise in white supremacy and brutally repressive restoration of white power in the South, along with race riots, segregation of trade and labor groups, and lynching in Northern and Midwestern states.

These developments reflected a hard truth: Millions of whites actively rejected the prospect of coexisting with Black Americans and collectively rebuilding an equal, just society from the embers of the Civil War. At the peak of Jim Crow disenfranchisement, poll taxes, literacy tests, arbitrarily enforced record-keeping requirements, and other tools were wielded to preserve the authority of a relatively small white minority.

We live in a markedly different moment in 2020, but parallels remain. In the wake of Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, we lost the preclearance requirement (Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act) and the “coverage formula” (Section 4) that previously required parts of Florida and other Southern states to obtain Department of Justice approval before amending or enacting electoral laws. And while plaintiffs are still able to sue for the removal of illegal gerrymandering schemes in North Carolina or challenge bans on early voting sites on state college campuses, these suits now necessarily take place on a one-off basis after the implementation of potentially restrictive policies. Shelby has allowed for the introduction of four strict photo voter ID laws since 2013, bringing the national total to seven. An additional three states have strict non-photo voter ID laws, 24 have rules that permit states to ask for identification, and numerous others have onerous voter registration requirements—often riding alongside inadequate provisions for early voting.

Why is felon disenfranchisement so impactful in Florida?

Florida’s criminal justice system reflects the overall national trend toward incarceration and penalization, but it’s a reflection from a fun house mirror. According to the Prison Policy Initiative’s most recent available data, the state has an incarceration rate of 833 per 100,000 population—119 percent of the national average and several times that of other OECD countries. As of 2018, Florida’s prison population stood at 176,000 people.

The situation is exacerbated by glaring race-based discrepancies in incarceration rates. While the size of the total prison population is alarming on its own, the aggregate figure belies the incarceration rate for Black Floridians in 2010—which, at 2,555 per 100,000 Black Floridians, was four times that of their white counterparts. It also obscures the fact that Black prisoners account for nearly half (46 percent) of Florida’s total incarcerated population—despite constituting just 16 percent of the state’s population.

It’s unsurprising, then, that of the nearly 15 million former felons in America in 2010, an estimated 37 percent were Black—a testament to the racial skew of felon disenfranchisement. This is exacerbated by the median household income of Black Floridians ($41,361), which is just 59 percent of the median for white households—thus ensuring the monetary requirement outlined in SB 7066 will disproportionately affect people of color.

All told, everything old is new again. SB 7066 reveals the tried-and-true flavors of Jim Crow-era election chicanery: subtle, pernicious policies crafted under the auspices of the public interest, but which fundamentally serve to hamstring U.S. democracy. After all, what is a democracy without elections?

The bountiful returns of electoral gatekeeping

Despite the deterministic effects of congressional polarization and gerrymandering, 102 congressional elections in 2018 were decided by 10 points or less, and 50 were decided by 5 percent or less. The 2016 election of Donald Trump was borne through razor-thin victories in Michigan (a 0.23 percent margin of victory), Pennsylvania (0.72 percent), Wisconsin (0.77 percent), and Florida (1.2 percent). Andrew Gillum was just over 30,000 votes away from eking out a victory in Florida’s gubernatorial contest, where more than 8 million people cast votes. Charlie Crist won his senate seat by 10,000 votes. Simply put, much of the time, elections are still very close.

It’s also true that elections and their associated paraphernalia—debates, conversations, social media diatribes—remain the most common way for Americans to get involved in shaping political outcomes. Eitan Hersh’s political hobbyism theory hinges on precisely this fact: “Technological changes have affected all forms of leisure, and it’s important to see how they affect political leisure, too … a century of political reforms [was] meant to make politics more open to ordinary people and less dominated by political elites, but they have simultaneously weakened power-seeking organizations and strengthened forms of political engagement that play to our worst instincts.” According to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, while 42 percent of U.S. adults had expressed public support for a campaign on social media in the last five years, just 28 percent had attended a political rally or event, and only 16 percent had worked or volunteered for a campaign. The United States has seen some large demonstrations in recent years, but we remain a country that mostly limits its political participation to the voting booth.

Thus, the impact of removing of an individual’s right to vote may manifest first in electoral outcomes, but it can burrow considerably deeper. Deploying state power to prevent a former felon from voting has the potential ultimate effect of eliminating that person from the electoral process altogether, adding an implied suggestion that the person’s social value is also diminished. If you can’t vote, are you really a citizen? And if you’re not a citizen, are you really an American?

In the Florida legislature’s refusal to adopt Amendment 4, we have a particularly craven attempt to lean on inequality in the justice system to justify inequality in our nation’s electoral functions. This deployment of segregation, disunion, and feigned race blindness is predictable—but it shouldn’t be. As we enter a new decade, let’s strive for something better—and prove that America can place justice and healing above cynical preservation of status-quo power.