Florida campaign underway to pay ‘poll taxes’ for the formerly incarcerated
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is spearheading a massive fundraising campaign to pay fines and fees for citizens returning from incarceration in order to restore their right to vote. | FRRC

A rapidly growing movement is urgently scrambling to pay thousands of fines, restitution charges, and legal fees to allow returning citizens or ex-felons in Florida to register to vote and cast ballots in the 2020 elections.

The effort comes in response to a Sept. 11 GOP-dominated U.S. Circuit Court ruling disenfranchising 1.5 million Floridians, two-thirds of whom are African American or Latino. The law, Senate Bill 7066, passed by the Republican legislature and signed by GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, prevents the restoration of voting rights to citizens returning from incarceration until they pay all fines, restitution, and legal fees, regardless of their ability to do so.

The Circuit Court threw out the ruling of Federal Judge Robert Hinkle, who called the law a modern-day poll tax and a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s 24th Amendment.

After the fall of the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War, several Southern states used “poll taxes,” a fee that had to be paid before a citizen could cast their ballot, as a means of limiting election participation. Though mainly instituted to keep African Americans from voting, they hit poor people across racial lines, including in states outside the South. The 24th Amendment, passed in 1964, banned such financial hurdles to voting.

The disenfranchised African-American and Latino returning citizens affected by the Florida law are likely Democratic voters in a state where a few thousand votes could make the difference in who wins the presidency. The Trump margin of victory in 2016 in Florida was 113,000 votes.

“It could definitely sway an election. I think we’re still living in a Jim Crow era no matter how you put it; it’s voter suppression at its finest and something we have to continue to fight to overcome,” said Tiniesha Johnson, a returning citizen.

SB 7066 and the subsequent court ruling nullify the will of 65% of Florida voters who approved Amendment 4 to the state constitution in 2018, the referendum restoring voting rights to most returning citizens. Before passage of Amendment 4, Florida was one of four states permanently disenfranchising returning citizens with laws dating back to the post-Reconstruction era. The others included Virginia, Iowa, and Kentucky, where governors have restored voting rights by executive order.

The felony conviction law barred one in five African-American adults from voting in Florida.

“The 11th Circuit’s decision is a blow to democracy and to the hundreds of thousands of returning citizens across Florida who should have an opportunity to participate in this incredibly important election,” said Desmond Meade, Florida Restoration Rights Coalition (FRRC) executive director. “We will continue to place people over politics. We will not rest until we live up to the promise of Amendment 4 and see every one of the 1.4 million returning citizens who want to be a part of our democracy have the opportunity to do so.”

Florida Rights Restoration Coalition Executive Director Desmond Meade rallies supporters at a June 2020 ‘Ride for Racial Justice.’ | FRRC

The ACLU initiated the FRRC, which is led by returning citizens. The group heads a powerful grassroots movement that includes the NAACP, League of Women Voters, The Advancement Project, New Florida Majority, and the faith-based community. Over 100 volunteer attorneys, three law firms, and two law school clinics have joined them.

The coalition views this as a long-term fight to fully restore voting rights given the domination of state government and courts by the GOP. In the immediate term, the FRRC and allies are up against an Oct. 5 deadline to pay back fees so as many returning citizens as possible can register to vote in the 2020 elections.

So far, the FRRC has raised over $20 million for their Fines and Fees Program to pay over 30,000 returning citizens’ fees. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg and his political operation donated $16 million, and basketball legend Michael Jordan donated $500,000. LeBron James, other African-American athletes, and entertainers donated $100,000 through More Than a Vote, an organization they established to combat racist voter suppression. Television networks MTV, Comedy Central, and VH1 also donated $250,000 to FRRC.

Find out more information on the Florida Restoration Rights Coalition and donate to the campaign.

“The FRRC works with returning citizens to determine their eligibility and how much they owe,” Jessica Younts, FRRC Research and Policy Director told a Zoom audience of Chicago activists at a recent meeting. FRRC has established relationships with county clerks enabling it to ascertain what a returning citizen owes. “If they owe $1,500 or less, we will process the payments. If they owe more than that they are put through the modification process.”

Many returning citizens owe far more restitution fees to victims, debts compounded by accruing interest many didn’t know they owed. For example, after SB 7066 passed, Rosemary McCoy learned she owed $7,500, and Sheila Singleton learned she had a debt of $12,000 in restitution and interest. Both are leaders of the movement to restore voting rights and, like many FRRC activists, are working tirelessly to mobilize every voter possible to defeat Trump.

FRRC

The FRRC accompanies payment of fees with a voter registration, education, and engagement campaign. Returning citizens can get plugged into the process in any of 20 local FRRC chapters.

Florida is emerging as the critical battleground of battleground states. If Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris win Florida and its 29 electoral votes, Trump’s path to victory would likely be doomed. And because Florida has a long history of mail-in ballots and a system to count them quickly, the outcome will probably be known on Election Day. A Biden victory would knock the legs out from under any Trump plot to steal the election.

This scenario explains why the GOP is so determined to suppress likely Democratic voter turnout in a state with a long history of voter suppression of African Americans, voter purges, and stealing elections, including what many refer to as the “2000 election coup” that handed the state—and thus the presidency—to George W. Bush.

The action of the Circuit Court also reveals how much Trump has corrupted the judiciary. Five of the six justices on the Circuit Court who voted to uphold a poll tax are Trump appointees. They include Justices Barbara Lagoa, a Cuban American on Trump’s shortlist to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Robert Luck. Both were Florida Supreme Court justices and decided on the case when it was argued there. They joined the U.S. Court of Appeals this July after pledging during U.S. Senate confirmation hearings not to participate in any rulings they were involved in while in the Florida court. Plaintiffs and Democratic senators had urged their disqualification from the case on this basis. Not surprisingly, both justices misled senators.

“As Black women, me and Rosemary are advocates,” said Singleton. “It doesn’t matter how they try to stop us. We are going to win anyway. This makes me want to fight even more.”

ELECTION 2020: Everything you need to know to vote in your state


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CONTRIBUTOR

John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He served as national chair of the Communist Party USA from 2014 to 2019. He is a regular writer for People's World, and active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, Pittsburgh, and Albuquerque and attended Antioch College. He currently lives in Chicago where he is an avid swimmer, cyclist, runner, and dabbler in guitar and occasional singer in a community chorus.

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