Former Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum on Monday slammed the state Legislature’s move to curtail voting rights for felons who have served their sentences, calling it a “poll tax” that will disproportionately impact voters of color.
The former Tallahassee mayor testified at a voting rights hearing held by the U.S. House of Representatives in Fort Lauderdale. Gillum and U.S. House Democrats assailed the Florida Legislature’s passage last Friday of a measure to require felons to pay fines and restitution costs before they can register to vote.
“What they’ve done at the Florida Legislature sends an extremely chilling effect to people’s ability to participate in the process, which I believe is not only antithetical to what was approved in November, but also to the Constitution of the United States of America,” Gillum told Congressional lawmakers.
In November, Amendment 4 won the approval of 64 percent of Florida voters, automatically restoring voting rights for some 1.4 million people who had felony records (except those convicted of murder or sex crimes.)
“It was very, very clear that court fees and fines were not in the constitutional language when voters — again 64 percent of us — went out and approved the constitutional amendment to automatically restore rights to a class of returning citizen,” said Gillum, who’s now chairman of Forward Florida, a progressive political action committee that’s working to register voters.
“And now through this legislative process … we’ve loaded it up and … it equates very much so to a poll tax.”
Poll taxes – fees imposed as an attempt to keep African American voters from voting – were deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966.
Florida Democrats serving in the U.S. House were similarly outraged by the Legislature’s move.
“Unfortunately, they made what I believe is an illegal decision to proscribe or interpret the voters’ intentions when they passed Amendment 4,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a South Florida Democrat.. “It is, plain and simple, a requirement for payment in order to be able to exercise your right to vote.”
Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat who represents parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties, said the legislation is “a far cry from the spirit of the amendment” and a “rejection of the democratic will of the people of this state.”
‘Very flawed people’
House Democrats from other states also criticized the Florida Legislature during Monday’s hearing.
“Laws are not always just. Laws are sometimes made by very flawed people who are doing things in their own self interest, just as this Legislature in this state has done as it relates to Amendment 4,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), who presided over Monday’s hearing.
North Carolina Democratic Rep. G. K. Butterfield, a former judge who served on North Carolina’s Supreme Court, warned that the Florida Legislature’s move will have wide-ranging impacts.
He cited the example of a 16-year-old offender in the 1980s who broke into an abandoned house and was charged with the felony of breaking and entering and larceny.
“And he stole an 8-track [player] in the 1980s that at that time was worth $400,” for which he served a three-year sentence, Butterfield said.
“He’s now a law-abiding citizen in the community, but still that $400 restitution and the court cost has now been accruing interest, I presume over the last 30 years, and now it’s thousands of dollars,” Butterfield said. “And apparently the state legislature is telling that young man — now he’s a middle aged man — that before he can vote, he’s got to pay all of these thousands of dollars before being allowed to vote. In my world, that is a poll tax.”
Gillum said the move is “almost nullification” of Amendment 4, and warned that the new legislation would have a disparate impact on communities of color, particularly on black citizens, who are disproportionately represented in Florida’s criminal justice system.
“I think one of the things that probably sent a little bit of a scare, possibly, to the Florida Legislature is on Jan. 8th, when we began the process of re-registering voters, we saw that people of color went out in droves to regain their right to vote,” Gillum said.
Republicans argued during the legislative session that the attorney who went before the Florida Supreme Court in 2017 to get the Amendment 4 ballot language approved said that “completion of sentence” included paying all fines, fees and restitution.
Republican state Rep. James Grant, who sponsored the legislation in the Florida House, denied that the measure is the equivalent of a poll tax.
Once he receives it, Gov. Ron DeSantis will have 15 days to sign or veto the bill, or let it become law without his signature.
Phoenix reporter Mitch Perry contributed to this report.