I know you’re thinking about the debates, or the appalling things being done in our name down along the border, or maybe even war with Iran. But spare me three minutes for another important thing happening this week, one that 1) is simply an affront to democracy and 2) could be the difference between Donald Trump winning or losing Florida, which it isn't at all crazy to say could mean the difference, in a close race, between his winning reelection or losing it.
Sometime this week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to let SB 7066 become law. That’s the bill that Florida Republicans passed earlier this year to try to undo the expected impact of 2018’s Amendment 4, the initiative restoring voting rights to ex-felons that Florida voters passed overwhelmingly, by 65 to 35 percent.
The relevant language of Amendment 4 said: “any disqualification from voting arising from a felony conviction shall terminate and voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” That’s a little bit of a linguistic curveball (disqualification…shall terminate), but it’s clear enough. People with past felony convictions could vote again after completing their sentence, including parole or probation.
This spring, as you no doubt read, the Republican-controlled state legislature sat down to write legislation to implement the initiative. Supporters of the amendment said that no implementing legislation was even needed, but Republicans felt differently. They deliberated, and they decided, in essence, that the amendment was really supposed to read “including parole or probation plus all restitution and court costs.” So they added that.
Critics exploded. This was not what the amendment said. Besides, they said, for a range of practical reasons, it was close to impossible for people with past felony convictions—some decades old, some from out of state—to figure out how much they might owe and to whom or what. It’s not as if there’s a whatexfelonsowe.com web site where it’s all in one place. The legislation was obviously an attempt to make it harder for these people, the preponderance of them presumably Democrats, to vote. “It’s a travesty for both ex-felons and the voters of the state of Florida who supported the referendum,” says State Senator Audrey Gibson, the senate minority (Democratic) leader.
The bill cleared the legislature in early May, and DeSantis said on May 7 that he would sign it. But he didn’t at first. Finally, the bill was officially sent to him on June 14, which commenced the ticking of a 15-day clock, by the end of which three outcomes are possible: one, he signs it in the 15 days; two, he vetoes it in the 15 days; three, he leaves it unsigned—in which case it will become law anyway.
So now there’s a little guessing game going on as to what DeSantis will do. You’ll remember DeSantis from his 2018 gubernatorial campaign against Democrat Andrew Gillum. He got national attention for his ad in which his wife boasted of Donald Trump’s support, and he was on the living room floor with his toddler daughter and her building blocks, encouraging her to “build the wall.” He beat Gillum by about 33,000 votes out of more than 8 million cast.
He certainly won’t veto. The general consensus among the people I spoke to was that he will sign the bill, perhaps as early as today. “Not signing it would be a slap in the face to the legislature that he’s already shown he can’t stand up to,” says Kevin Cate, a consultant who worked in the past for Governor Charlie Crist and on Gillum’s campaign.
So, one way or the other, effective July 1, Floridians with past felony convictions will have to make full restitution to have the right to vote. It is a violation of the will of the 2018 voters and the intent of the amendment. The Florida League of Women Voters and other groups are rushing around the state trying to register as many people as they can before the law takes effect on July 1, as people registered before that date won’t have to pay those costs.
Oh, and that’s not all this bill does. As a little extra insurance, Republican lawmakers also threw into the 64-page bill a clause requiring election supervisors to make sure that all early voting locations “provide sufficient non-permitted parking to accommodate the anticipated amount of voters.” Ask yourself: What kinds of locales in America typically have numerous permitted parking spaces and very few public spaces? Answer: colleges and universities. So the bill goes after the college vote, too—another Democratic-leaning constituency.
How many people will this affect? It’s hard to say. With respect to those with felony convictions, estimates last fall were that voting rights could be restored for up to 1.4 million people in the state, although I was also told that may be high. Whatever the real number, the legislation will certainly reduce—by a third, by a half, who knows—the number of people in this category who can vote. “They’re going to squash some numbers, and they’re going to lessen the numerical impact” of the amendment, says Myrna Perez of the Brennan Center for Justice.
To return to the immodest claim I made in the first paragraph above, about this maybe being the difference between Trump winning and losing, Florida elections are often very close. There’s DeSantis’ 33,000-vote margin over Gillum. Republican Rick Scott beat Democrat Bill Nelson by about 10,000 votes in the 2018 Senate race. And in 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 113,000—more, but still barely more than a percentage point out of more than 9 million votes cast.
Steve Schale, a longtime Democratic consultant in the state, supports Amendment 4 and opposes the new legislation, but he adds he’s seen some research suggesting that the ex-felon vote might not be as monolithic as one would assume. Many of these folks “have been out of the process for 30 or 40 years,” he says, so predicting their partisan affiliation might be trickier than it seems. Still, he agrees that a small number of votes could really matter. He notes that since Florida became a competitive presidential state in 1992, there have been 51 million ballots cast, and the winners and losers of those elections are separated by a collective 17,500 votes.
So making it harder for college students and those with past convictions to vote could very well alter the outcome in a number of statewide races. And at the presidential level, Florida’s 29 electoral votes could well make all the difference in a tight election.
Perez told me the Brennan Center and others will file suit in federal court in Florida alleging that the legislation is unconstitutional shortly after it takes effect. Priorities USA plans to file a similar suit over the college campus early-voting restrictions. So we will see what unfolds.
But the intention of the legislature and the governor couldn’t be clearer. “I don’t even ascribe it to hate,” says Kevin Cate. “I ascribe it to math. They’re doing whatever it takes to stay in power.” Undoubtedly so. And in doing it, they’re brushing aside the expressed will of 5.15 million voters, against just 2.8 million who voted for Amendment 4.
There are words for this sort of thing. “Democracy” isn’t one of them.