We were impressed when Ron DeSantis said in a Miami Herald op-ed, days before becoming governor, that he would honor the people’s will on the issues: “Floridians have spoken, and we will listen.”
We take Florida’s new leader at his word and expect him to honor those who spoke firmly when they voted for Amendment 4, which restores ex-felons’ right to vote, unfairly denied them for more than a century. These former prisoners worked hard to live law-abiding lives after paying their debt to society and, very often succeeded. But the state still made them pay for past mistakes.
For decades, ex-felons were dogged by an unconscionable law rooted first in pre-Civil War racism, then amended, barely, in the midst of post-Civil War Jim Crow politics. It’s to Florida’s shame that such an injustice endured into the 21st century.
With 64 percent of voters saying Yes, the vote exceeded the 60 percent threshold needed to add Amendment 4 to the state Constitution. Floridians clearly spoke with resolve.
But DeSantis and legislative leaders already have signaled their intent to meddle. There is no need. Amendment 4 explicitly lays out the terms for which ex-prisoners can vote — murderers and felony sex offenders are not covered — and the conditions that must be satisfied before they can enter the voting booth.
For years, successive legislatures refused to bring ex-felons back into full citizenship. For too long, the state’s Clemency Board bestowed its mercy in restoring voting rights arbitrarily, at best, and with obvious bias, at worst.
County election supervisors received firm instructions to ensure ex-prisoners’ registration process went smoothly on Tuesday, the day the amendment went into effect. And they showed up in force in South Florida, at last able to more fully take part in America’s promise.
“Today I became somebody,” one former prisoner exclaimed. That statement alone should make Floridians proud.
But Florida remains a state where voter-suppression tactics are still in play. DeSantis, a conservative who struck refreshingly progressive notes in his inaugural speech on Tuesday, should reject them.
To be blunt, this Republican-controlled Legislature simply cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of felons whom they’ve been content to let languish as second-class citizens long after they have completed the terms of their sentences. These lawmakers have been driven by fears of adding more than 1 million potential Democrats to the voter rolls, especially among African-American and Hispanic ex-prisoners.
There is no guarantee that once legislators get their hands on it, they won’t erect other hurdles between ex-prisoners and the ballot box.
Plus, lawmakers have a sorry history of thwarting voters’ intent. The Legislature has yet to fully use Amendment 1 funds, approved in 2014, to purchase wetlands, forests and wildlife habitat for conservation.
“The ACLU and its coalition partners, in drafting the Amendment 4 language, made clear it would not need interpretation or implementation. It’s clear on its face who qualifies and who does not,” Melba Pearson told the Editorial Board. Pearson is the deputy director and interim legal director of the ACLU of Florida.
“The language was vetted by the Florida Supreme Court. It was clear, unambiguous and dealt with only one topic,” Pearson said. “The people of Florida knew just what they were voting for.”
Of course, they did. And the governor and lawmakers should take them at their word.