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Let the People (of Florida) Vote

by David Leonhardt

Winning civil rights is never easy. The fight can stretch on for decades and include setbacks that feel like utter defeat. An enduring lesson of the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century is the need for persistence, because social progress doesn’t come without a fight.

I’d encourage you to keep this idea in mind as I tell you this morning about the fight for voting rights in Florida. Parts of the story are depressing. Yet I think optimism is still the right attitude.

Last year, Florida voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4, a ballot initiative restoring voting rights to 1.4 million state residents previously convicted of a felony. It seemed like one of the biggest victories for voting rights in years, especially because almost 20 percent of black adults in the state had previously been prevented from voting. In May, however, the state legislature — controlled by Republicans — passed a bill that undermined the amendment, and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill in June.

It required ex-felons to repay all outstanding judicial fees before they could register to vote. This may sound reasonable, but Florida imposes a dizzying array of fees on prisoners. They are, as civil rights groups have argued, akin to a poll tax. Most former prisoners apparently have outstanding fees, which makes the new law seem like a reversal of Amendment 4.

But it doesn’t need to be. Just as civil rights groups organized to pass the amendment, they can also organize to make sure that it mostly goes into effect. How? I see three promising approaches:

1. Fight the new law, in court and elsewhere. Nobody should feel guilty about fighting the state legislature: It tried to overturn the will of the state’s voters, 65 percent of whom voted for Amendment 4. The A.C.L.U., N.A.A.C.P. and other civil rights groups have all sued to block the new law, making the poll tax argument. And in Miami-Dade County — home to 13 percent of the state’s population — officials are interpreting the law narrowly and applying it only to some fees, as The Appeal’s Kira Lerner and Daniel Nichanian have reported.

2. Raise money to pay the fees. Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley has estimated that each disenfranchised Floridian owes an average of about $1,400. Do the math, and you get a big number: between $1 billion and $2 billion. But every $1,400 raised helped register another voter, and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which originally got Amendment 4 on the ballot, is now trying to raise money for exactly that purpose. It’s something that I hope foundations and philanthropists will consider.

3. Help people register. Even after people have paid up, they need to register to vote. As the political scientists Marc Meredith and Michael Morse have noted, most ex-felons who have their voting rights restored never register, and only a small percentage actually cast a ballot.

“We want to get the law struck down,” Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center for Justice says. “But as long as the law is on the books, the work to get people registered by working within the confines that the law provides is crucial.”

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