Conor Friedersdorf: Florida votes for democracy
Sanders forced his rivals into a difficult spot: Should they agree with him, satisfying a party base ever more focused on social justice, at the risk of being tarred as soft on crime? (Sanders himself took heat for saying that even the Boston Marathon bomber should be able to vote, although that’s the obvious implication of such a rule.) Or should they tack right against Sanders, courting centrist voters but risking activist backlash?
Mayor Pete Buttigieg opted for the latter, saying that while in prison, felons shouldn’t be able to vote. Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro tried to split the difference, saying they backed voting rights for nonviolent-felon prisoners. Senator Elizabeth Warren was cautious, saying, “I’m not there yet.” Senator Kamala Harris was more cautious still, calling for a “conversation.”
Conversations are useful, and policy is better made deliberately than haphazardly. The question of the right of felons to vote is important—though not important to as many Americans as whether ex-cons can vote, nor as politically advantageous for those who support it. It’s unlikely, however, to be a defining issue of the Democratic campaign, and unlikely to be a top priority if the Democratic nominee wins the 2020 presidential election.
Contrast that with this week’s proceedings in Tallahassee. In November, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment that automatically gives people who have committed felony offenses, except for murder and sex crimes, the right to vote once they complete their prison sentence as well as parole or probation. (Previously, people could apply to a state board for restoration of rights after five years, though a small portion of requests were granted.) Although some experts contended that the law might have little real impact on elections, the prospect of 1.5 million new voters in one of the swingiest states in the nation got partisan attention. Democrats hoped that ex-felons would add to their coalition; Republicans feared the same.
After the amendment passed, the Florida legislature began working on enabling legislation—in other words, hashing out the nitty-gritty of how the amendment would work in practice. Both chambers of the state house are controlled by Republicans, as is the governorship. On Wednesday, the state house passed a bill, along partisan lines, that would require people who want to vote to pay all court fees, fines, and restitution associated with their case. The state senate is considering a version that requires that restitution be paid, but not fees and fines in many cases.
Many advocates see the bill as a betrayal of the amendment’s spirit. By insisting on payment, which may be substantial, the bill would guarantee that many of the people who appeared to be in line for rights restoration under the November vote will never actually be able to cast a ballot.