By Jesse Jackson
Until 2018, Florida—the state vital to the presidential victories of George Bush and Donald Trump—deprived one in 10 voters, and two in 10 African Americans, of the right to vote with a constitutional provision banning felons from voting, even after they had fulfilled their sentences.
Many with nonviolent drug felonies, enforced by a systematically biased criminal justice system, are kept from the polls. The discriminatory effect and intent of this exclusion is obvious.
In a stunning act of decency in 2018, Floridians voted overwhelmingly to amend their constitution and restore the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions “after they complete all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.” According to the Tallahassee Democrat, the “Voting Restoration Amendment,” would “grant most of the 1.7 million convicted felons the right to vote and help select their leaders for local, state and federal offices.”
Voting rights activists drew up plans to help contact and register them, with the charismatic young leader, former Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Andrew Gillum committed to leading the effort.
Now Republicans in the state legislator are moving to frustrate the will of citizens, adding a new burden to exclude voters, a new form of one of the most loathsome Jim Crow tactics—the poll tax. Republicans in a House committee have voted—contrary to the intent and the text of the referendum passed by voters—to exclude from voting those who haven’t paid their fines (even including those on a court-approved payment plan). Fines are imposed not by judges as part of the sentence, but by administrative clerks. They do not block any other voters from voting. If Republicans have their way—and they have a majority in the House legislature—they will likely use these fines to block a substantial portion of African Americans from voting. Despite the will of its people, Florida Republicans want to impose a racially biased poll tax to strip citizens of the right to vote—and to tilt elections in their favor.
Beginning in the 1890s, the poll tax was central to enforcing segregation in the South. Most of the laws had a “grandfather clause” that exempted those whose parents or grandparents had the right to vote prior to the Civil War. In 1964, this foul measure was outlawed for federal elections in the 24th Amendment to the Constitution. In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional even in state elections. So, states like Florida found other tricks and traps to limit the vote. Now, after the citizens of Florida have thrown out felony exclusion, Republicans threaten to impose a new Jim Crow poll tax.
There is no justification—except partisan zealotry built upon race-based politics. Republicans, from Trump on down, have chosen to make themselves the party of racial division. African Americans, not surprisingly, tend to vote overwhelmingly against them. So, Republicans use various tricks to suppress the African-American vote— gerrymandering, restrictive voter ID laws, cuts in early voter hours and opposition to same-day voter registration—all to make it harder for the poor and minorities to vote.
But imposing the modern-day version of a poll tax is a new low.
If Republicans do succeed in passing this injustice, it will be challenged in the courts or in another referendum. But none of this should be necessary. The real question is to the Republican congressional majority in Florida: Have you no decency? Are you so blinded by partisan self-interest that you would maliciously deprive a million Floridians of the right to vote? Are you so arrogant as to ignore the 65 percent of the voters who voted to erase this injustice from Florida’s constitution? Have you no shame?