In 2018, the state of Florida joined a number of other states when they passed an amendment to their constitution that would restore voting rights to a broad category of convicted felons. It wasn’t a case of carte blanche for all convicts, however. Eligible convicts would need to have served all of their required time as well as complete any associated requirements such as community service. They would also need to pay any required fines and fees associated with their crimes and trials. It was that last bit that spurred a lawsuit brought by some of the affected felons. They claimed that many of them were too poor to pay their fines and fees, creating the equivalent of a poll tax before they would be able to restore their voting rights. The case of Jones et al. v Governor of Florida wound up at the 11th Circuit, which ruled last month that the requirement to pay the fines was a legitimate part of settling the felons’ debt to society and the requirement could stand.
In an op-ed at USA Today, Paul E. Pelletier rails against the decision, claiming that finding should be dismissed. Why? Because of racism, of course. He writes at length about the “racist roots” of fining convicts and how such practices represent Jim Crow-era efforts to suppress Black citizens and disenfranchise them.
The vestiges of enshrined racism are evident in the appalling ignorance of the court opinion’s first sentence: “Florida has long followed the common practice of excluding those who commit serious crimes from voting.”
With that dog whistle, Chief Judge William Pryor of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals proceeded to again justify as constitutional the racially biased practice of disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of Florida felons who have failed to pay what are, in effect, indeterminate financial penalties stemming from their convictions. This is an unfair and crushing blow to rehabilitated felons, all of them U.S. citizens and most of them minorities, who want to participate in the democratic process.
To be clear, the “common practice” of felon disenfranchisement laws in the South is rooted in Jim Crow era constitutional and legislative initiatives designed simply to deny Blacks the right to vote.