Florida's Arrests of Voters with Felony Convictions Echoes Post-Reconstruction EraBreaking News
tags: racism, Florida, voting rights, felon disenfranchisement, Ron DeSantis
In August, when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced charges against 20 people who he claimed had committed voter fraud, Rodney Johnson took notice.
The 51-year-old has a felony on his record, like all of the people DeSantis had arrested. He wondered if the governor would come after him next, because he had just voted in the August primary.
Johnson was convicted of drug trafficking and released in 2002 after serving 22 months in prison. For years after his release, he was barred from voting due to Florida’s draconian rules. In 2018, voters passed Amendment 4, a landmark ballot initiative that overrode the 19th century policy barring anyone with a felony conviction from voting for life. Amendment 4 allowed people convicted of most felonies to vote once they complete their sentence.
Johnson’s first time voting was in 2020 and he’s been engaged with electoral politics ever since.
But a series of arrests this year have rocked the reform’s promise. Earlier this year, county prosecutors charged people for voting despite owing court debt, due to a law signed by DeSantis in 2019 that rolled back Amendment 4 by imposing financial payments. The people who were then charged in August had been convicted of murder and sexual assault, offenses carved out by Amendment 4. But several said that they thought the amendment allowed them to legally vote, especially because they had been provided with voter IDs by local election officials—with the approval of the DeSantis administration.
Now, leading up to the November 8 general election, Johnson is wondering what legal stunt DeSantis might pull next.
“It makes you think twice before going to vote,” he said.
A new report by the Sentencing Project estimates that 1.2 million Floridians are barred from voting this fall due to a past felony conviction in Florida. Others may have regained their right to vote but shy away from the polls over the uncertainty caused by the recent events. And given the vast racial disparities in Florida’s criminal legal system, the predicament disproportionately affects African Americans.
Fear tactics have been wielded to mute Black people’s voices and suppress their votes throughout American history. The Ku Klux Klan did this, often through violence, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This year, in Florida and in other states, intimidation and election-related threats of violence have made securing polling locations more difficult leading up to elections.
But legislation has also functioned as a means of voter suppression. Prior to Amendment 4 being passed, Florida’s constitution had disenfranchised all citizens who had been convicted of any felony offense dating back to Florida’s first constitution in 1838. It said, “all persons convicted of bribery, perjury, forgery, or other high crime, or misdemeanor” should be barred from voting. This was amended in 1868 to remove the language about misdemeanors. In 1968, the language was amended again, to name felonies as the specific reason that people should not be able to vote.
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