As the first midterm election season since Donald Trump’s 2020 effort to steal an election passes through, many citizens are getting swept up in the storm. Election officials are being harassed for doing their jobs; election deniers in purple states are gaining momentum in their quests to D.C.
A unique situation is rising in Florida: Four years after an overwhelming majority of Floridians chose via ballot measure to restore the right to vote for formerly incarcerated citizens, the state is arresting them for doing just that. But why?
Below are five points on what to know about the developing situation.
A pre-Civil War law in Florida used to bar former felons from voting for life.
Since 1845, Florida’s constitution included a statute barring any person “who shall hereafter be convicted of bribery, perjury, or other infamous crime” from voting.
A 2008 report by the Florida Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights linked this statute to the state’s ongoing attempts to suppress Black votes after the Civil War.
“After the war, the First Reconstruction Act of 1867 mandated that to re-enter the Union, former Confederate states had to adopt new constitutions guaranteeing male suffrage without regard to race,” the report states.
Florida was among several Southern states that explicitly barred Black people from voting, freedmen or not. When the Confederates lost the war, the state adopted an array of barriers to voting in order to comply with the First Reconstruction Act while upholding race discrimination, including literacy tests, poll taxes, property qualifications, and felon disenfranchisement laws, among others.
The measure was lifted with a historic ballot initiative in 2018.
Florida activists had a similar understanding of the state’s disenfranchisement laws. Led by the nonpartisan activist group the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, organizers pushed Amendment 4, the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, on the ballot to rescind the centuries-old ban.
It worked: On November 6, 2018, Floridians passed Amendment 4, also known as the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, by a healthy margin — 64.55% of the vote — reinstating suffrage for over 1.4 million formerly incarcerated residents across the state. (The amendment excluded those convicted of murder or sexual crimes.)
Florida Republicans rolled back the amendment’s scope.
The Florida GOP wasn’t too happy about the outcome of the Amendment 4 vote: Less than a year later, Governor Ron DeSantis signed Florida Senate Bill 7066 (SB 7066) into law, which required that newly enfranchised felons repay all fines and fees owed before they can gain the right to vote.
The bill was tried in federal district court, where Judge Robert Hinkle ruled on May 24, 2020, that the state could only prohibit felons from voting if they can afford to pay their outstanding fines and fees, decrying the bill as a “pay-to-vote” system.
“A state may disenfranchise felons and impose conditions on their reenfranchisement,” he wrote. “But the conditions must pass constitutional scrutiny. Whatever might be said of a rationally constructed stem, this one falls short in substantial respects.”
But the federal judge’s ruling was blocked by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on July 2, 2020; that September, the appellate court ruled in favor of the state, allowing SB 7066 to pass without restrictions.
Governor Ron DeSantis launched an office to prosecute illegal voting—but mostly targets former felons.
The Republican governor has since doubled-down on his efforts to curb felon voting. This summer he launched a new division within Florida’s Department of State: the Office of Election Crimes and Security.
He announced on August 18, 2022, that 20 Florida residents in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties had all been arrested for voter fraud.
“They did not go through any process, they did not get their rights restored, and yet they went ahead and voted anyways,” he told reporters. “That is against the law and now they’re going to pay the price for it.”
But numerous media reports have found that the arrestees didn’t know that they weren’t allowed to vote. Most of those arrested had, in fact, been encouraged to vote through registration drives and government officials. In several cases, the state only rescinded their right to vote after they’d legally registered to do so.
DeSantis’ administration shrugs off blame for creating this situation.
So, who’s fault is it? Governor DeSantis has claimed that counties are responsible for notifying applicants as to whether they’re eligible to vote, but former Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee told ProPublica/Times-Herald that the law places that responsibility on the state.
“The Florida Department of State has a duty under section 98.075(5), Fla. Stat. to identify those registered voters who have been convicted of a felony and whose voting rights have not been restored,” she told them in an email. “The law requires the department to review information from a number of sources and make an initial determination as to whether the information is credible and reliable.”
Some of those swept up in the prosecutions are challenging the charges. Romona Oliver, a 55-year-old Tampa Bay resident who’d recently served 20 years in prison, was among those swept up in the raids. She’d registered to vote in early 2020. When a rep at the Hillsborough Tax Collector’s office asked whether she had a felony conviction, she said yes; the county official didn’t know that her arrest was for second-degree murder, however, and helped her fill out her registration form, Oliver told the Tampa Bay Times.
Voting for the first time in 2020 wound up the act that sent her back to jail. When police came to her door, according to the Tampa Bay Times, she wasn’t sure what she did. “I ain’t done nothing but go to work and come home,” she reportedly said.
Correction: The 2018 measure reenfranchising felons was a ballot measure to amend the state constitution, not a bill.