As Election Day in the United States looms near, Americans across the United States are casting their votes early or making plans to do so in-person on November 3rd. However, voting, which is a right guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution, is still forbidden for some.
Voting Rights in Florida
Recently, the state of Florida has made headlines due to Amendment 4, a law that was passed in 2018, allows convicted felons who have completed their sentences to vote for the first time this November. Under the 2018 amendment, the voting rights of convicted felons in Florida would be restored after they complete all terms of their sentence (including parole or probation). The amendment, however, does not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses. According, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), a grassroots group, a little over 67,000 people registered to vote after the passage of Amendment 4. Although the passage of Amendment 4 was widely supported by voters, the Republican-controlled state legislature later passed a law in 2019 which made it difficult for convicted felons to vote. The 2019 law, according to Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s voting rights project, “interpreted all terms of sentence to include payment of legal financial obligation.” Efforts to block the 2019 law proved unsuccessful, as a federal appeals court in September ruled that convicted felons would be required to pay outstanding fines or fees prior to voting. Politico reported earlier this month that groups, such as the FRRC and former Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg raised millions of dollars to help convicted felons pay off their debts prior to Florida’s voter registration deadline; a move that was not well received by Republican lawmakers, who have demanded an investigation into Bloomberg.
The Roots of Disenfranchisement and Voter Suppression
While the concept of disenfranchisement dates back to the colonial era and the notion of “civil death,” it is also rootedin the South’s post-Civil War laws that were created to enforce racial segregation and suppress Black voters. Poll taxes and literacy tests were once required under the Jim Crow laws, despite Black citizens having gained the right to vote with the ratification of the 15th Amendment. The use of poll taxes in federal elections was eventually banned with the ratification of the 24th Amendment in 1964. In March of 1965, the Voting Rights Act, which banned literacy tests and helped expand the voting rights of Black people and racial and ethnic minorities, was signed into law by President Johnson. And, in 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the use of poll taxes in state elections. Critics and activistshave described the 2019 law passed by Florida’s Republican-led legislature as a modern day “poll tax.”
In 2013, the Supreme Court in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, invalidated a part of the Voting Rights Act by allowing nine states to make changes to their election laws without prior approval from the federal government. In her 2019 testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, Leah Aden of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, discussed the impact of Shelby on Black voters and other communities of color, the ongoing acts of voter suppression, and the continuous fight to uphold the protections of the act. According to Aden, the disenfranchisement of convicted felons is “one of the key civil rights issues of our time.”
Voting Rights in Other States
According to the National Conference of States Legislatures (NCSL), reinstating the right to vote for convicted felons is a state-by-state policy choice. Currently, the majority of states “re-enfranchise” felons who have completed the sentences, including prison, parole, and probation. However, the trend, especially in recent years, has been to restore the rights to felons at some point. For example, the Governors of Iowa (2020), Kentucky (2019), and Virginia (2019), have all signed executive orders; grant felons the right to vote after they complete their sentences. In September, DCist reported that the D.C. Board of Elections sent 2,400 voter-registration forms to individuals who are serving their sentences. And, in California, voters will decide at the polls whether to allow close 50,000 parolees to vote in future elections. Although some states, such as those listed above, have adopted reforms to expand voting access to convicted felons, it is estimated that 5.2 million Americans are still “forbidden to vote because of felony disenfranchisement, or laws restricting voting rights for those convicted of felony-level crimes.”
Instructors, click on the link below to download this week’s lecture for use in your classroom.
The deck contains a writing prompt, a debate question, as well as other assessment questions.
- Writing: Explain why the disenfranchisement of people convicted of felonies is considered to be one of the key civil rights issues of our time.
- Debate: In 2020, a federal court of appeals upheld a 2019 law that would require convicted felons in Florida to pay outstanding fines or fees prior to voting. Would you consider this a poll tax? Do you think that this ruling further contributes to the continued disenfranchisement of Black voters and other communities of color?
- Poll: All inmates, except for those who have committed heinous crimes, should be allowed to vote while incarcerated. (Agree or Disagree).
- Short Answer: Why is the 2019 law passed by Florida’s state legislature referred to as a “modern day poll tax”?
Cover Image: © iStockphoto.com/YingYang