May 13, 2023
Ali Javery
Tampa Bay Times

Florida leads U.S. in disenfranchised voters. Stop making the problem worse | Column

Despite the clear will of the voters, Florida keeps making it hard for returning citizens to vote.

Not quite five years ago, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4, which “restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation,” excluding those convicted of murder or sexual offenses. This offered 1.15 million disenfranchised Floridians the opportunity to cast a ballot.

Even though the voters of Florida made their stance crystal clear on rights restoration, along with study after study proving rights restoration and participation in democracy leads to increased public safety and lower recidivism rates, less than a year later, our governor directly refuted the will of the people by signing SB 7066 into law. The 2019 law essentially created a poll tax for formerly incarcerated Floridians in a maneuver to deter more than 900,000 of the 1.15 million disenfranchised individuals from exercising their right to vote.

In the past year, we saw the creation of a frivolous and wasteful election crimes task force, which ended up arresting a number of folks who cast a ballot after they registered to vote upon completion of their incarceration. Though these people were issued voting cards by the state after being told they could register to vote, their acts of voting could land them up to five years behind bars — a clear indication of a broken government system.

So how did our government fix it this past legislative session? The simple answer is: They didn’t.

Today, the state still puts onus on the potential voter to deem their eligibility, and in a state that has flip-flopped on its stance around restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals, it’s no wonder that Floridians are confused. And what’s even more alarming, the system that is now in place is creating a chilling effect and deterring those who have their rights restored from making their voice heard on Election Day because they fear the threat of jail time.

This is not an isolated problem. When it comes to the intersection of the criminal justice system and democracy, Florida takes the cake for the worst state in the nation, especially for Black Floridians. According to the Sentencing Project, not only has Florida surpassed every single state in the nation for disenfranchised voters, but also, “one in eight Black Floridians of voting age disenfranchised, a rate roughly two times that of non-Black Floridians.”

Thankfully, organizations like the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition are working to ensure returning citizens understand their eligibility status, but it shouldn’t be up to the sole discretion and efforts of nonprofits to ensure democracy works for the people of our state. Instead, our state government needs to stand behind its citizens and their ability to exercise their democratic rights.

Unfortunately, the state is wasting time and money with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new election police unit. The Washington Post recently reported that of the first 20 arrests announced by the Office of Election Crimes and Security, six cases have been dismissed and the one case that went to trial resulted in a split verdict. Another five cases resulted in plea deals that did not lead to jail time. So that pencils out to a cost of some $240,000 spent per plea deal so far, given the office budget of $1.2 million.

At this rate, are the convictions really the point? Or is this about creating fear and confusion among voters about whether they can exercise their rights without fear?

There is another way to measure the impact. DeSantis has asked to triple funding for the task force to $3.1 million. A 2018 paper by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that Florida spent an average of $15.91 per eligible voter to administer elections. By that measure, the funding DeSantis is seeking could instead be used to help some 194,846 Floridians vote.

If DeSantis gets his way, Florida will be throwing even more money at his election police unit. If the early track record is any indication, it won’t result in many convictions. But it will have a whole lot of money to spread around to sow confusion and fear into Florida’s community of citizens who were previously incarcerated.

How about instead we redirect that funding to make sure local election departments have the resources they need to run secure, accessible and inclusive elections?

Ali Javery is the communications director for the Institute for Responsive Government, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to ensuring state and federal governments work effectively for the very people they serve. Before that, she was a principal consultant at Fireside Campaigns and is a United States Senate staff alumna. She lives in Riverview.