Civil rights groups are decrying what they say is a new poll tax after the Florida Senate passed a bill Friday that would require formerly incarcerated people with felony convictions to repay all fines and fees to courts before their voting rights are restored. This comes six months after voters in Florida approved a measure to restore voting rights to 1.4 million people with nonviolent felonies who have fully completed their sentences, overturning a Jim Crow-era law aimed at keeping African Americans from voting. Nearly 65 percent of voters approved the constitutional amendment to re-enfranchise people with former felony convictions in November. It was hailed as the biggest win for voting rights in decades, with the potential to sway the 2020 election and beyond. But the Florida legislature’s vote threatens to keep tens of thousands from the ballot boxes. We speak with Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and chairman of Floridians for a Fair Democracy. He spearheaded Amendment Four, which has re-enfranchised 1.4 million Floridians, including himself.
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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show looking at Republican efforts to suppress the vote in Florida. Civil rights groups are decrying what they say is a new poll tax after the Florida Senate passed a bill Friday that would require formerly incarcerated people with felony convictions to repay all fines and fees to courts before their voting rights are restored. This comes six month after voters in Florida approved a measure to restore voting rights to 1.4 million people with nonviolent felonies who have fully completed their sentences, overturning a Jim Crow-era law aimed at keeping African Americans from voting. One in five African Americans in Florida and 10% of the state’s adult population have been ineligible to vote because of a criminal record.
AMY GOODMAN: Nearly 65% of voters approved the constitutional amendment to reenfranchise people with former felony convictions in November. It was hailed as the biggest win for voting rights around the country in decades with the potential to sway the 2020 election and beyond. But the Florida legislature’s vote threatens to keep tens of thousands from the ballot boxes. Florida Democrats are urging Republican governor Ron DeSantis to veto the legislation, saying in a statement “If the voter suppression measures go into effect, DeSantis will be known as the Jim Crow Governor.”
We go now to Desmond Meade, President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, chair of the Floridians for a Fair Democracy. He spearheaded Amendment 4, which has reenfranchised 1.4 million Floridians, including himself. Or so he hoped. Desmond Meade, welcome back to Democracy Now! What is going on here? The amendment passed overwhelmingly. Explain what the governor and the legislature — governor hasn’t signed this yet, but — are pushing.
DESMOND MEADE: Yes. First of all, good morning, Amy, and thank you for having me back again on your show. I will start off by saying that what we were able to accomplish in November of 2018 still remains intact. At the heart of Amendment 4 was the fact that we abolished a 150-year-old Jim Crow law in Florida. Prior to Amendment 4 passing, anyone convicted of a felony offense faced a lifetime bar from voting. And so we effectively removed that. And no matter what the legislature comes up with, that victory still remains intact.
AMY GOODMAN: But what about this — what people are calling a poll tax? How are they going to limit the 1.4 million people who potentially could become voters again?
DESMOND MEADE: When you talk about the impact that the restoration of voting rights would have even on future elections, when we look at the impact of this legislation, it only — we’re estimating that it impacts about 700,000 returning citizens. That leaves another 700,000 who would not be impacted at all by this legislation. And as an organization that speaks for or on behalf of returning citizens, what we’re focused on mostly is how can we engage those 700,000 people and get them registered to vote and get them voting? Because at the end of the day, you’re talking about a state in which it took only took 30,000 votes to decide the governor, 15,000 to decide the congressman and about 100,000 to decide the president of United States.
Now, as a relates to the legislation that is before the governor now to sign, there are still some gems in that legislation that would allow the 700,000 that are impacted to have a much easier pathway to voting. In that legislation, they give the judge — a judge has the authority to waive those financial obligations or convert them to community service hours. And so that is some bright spots that’s in that legislation coming out. And that is what we are moving forward on.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Desmond, in terms of the impact of the original referendum vote, Florida has 21 million people. It’s the third-largest state in the union, clearly the largest battleground state. And the impact on the presidential election of 2020 that could be had by those 700,000 at least getting registered — what has been the progress so far in getting people registered?
DESMOND MEADE: So one of the things — first of all, our organization has already registered over 5,000 returning citizens. And then there are multiple organizations that are out there registering folks. And we have returning citizens that are registering on their own. And so there are literally thousands of returning citizens that have already been added to the roster, myself included. I registered to vote in January. I received my voter registration card and looking forward to participating. I think what is crucial, what is important for us as returning citizens, is that we are looking to impact every election along the lines of the issues that impact people with felony convictions and their family members. We’re looking to impact elections based around criminal justice reform.
AMY GOODMAN: Why do you choose to use that term “returning citizens”?
DESMOND MEADE: When we first started, what we found was that when you refer to someone as an ex-con or ex-felon, you actually increase the likely of them recidivating. We’ve heard that if you call a child stupid growing up, eventually that child will believe that. And so we are a group that is committed to increasing public safety. We are a group that is committed to becoming assets in our community. And so we use the term “returning citizens” to put a more positive energy out there, to encourage folks who have made mistakes in the past that they are not less than human, that they are a citizen, that they are a human being that can be contributing members of society.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Gillum, who narrowly lost the Florida gubernatorial election to DeSantis in November, tweeted “Amendment 4 got a million more votes than me and a million more votes than Governor Ron DeSantis. The governor would be well advised to veto this poll tax. Voters spoke loud and clear — we believe in second chances.” We have 10 seconds, Desmond Meade. Do you think DeSantis is signing off on this?
DESMOND MEADE: Chances are he is going to sign off on it. We know that during his campaign, he called for implementation legislation. We believe that there should not be implementation legislation. Is this the legislation that we would like? No, we don’t like it. But we know that there are some gems in it, and we’re going to do our best to create a more inclusive and vibrant democracy in the state of Florida, and we will have an impact in 2020 and beyond.
AMY GOODMAN: Desmond Meade, we want to thank you for being with us. President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, chair of the Floridians for a Fair Democracy. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan González. Thanks for joining us.