Straight out of the Florida Department of Oh-No-You-Didn’t, Governor-elect Ron DeSantis and other Republican politicians now claim that they need to “implement” the ballot measure that citizens approved to automatically restore voting rights to felons who have paid their debts to society.
DeSantis and Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, among others, ignore that we already “implemented” this. On Election Day. With nearly 65 percent voter approval for Florida Constitutional Amendment 4.
Welcome to yet another Florida episode of politicians thwarting the voters’ will, just like when state leaders distorted the directives voters gave them to buy conservation land in the 2014 Water and Land Conservation Initiative, the 2016 medical marijuana amendment and the 2002 amendment to reduce class sizes.
DeSantis and Galvano publicly opposed Amendment 4, a historic reform of our state’s embarrassing civil-rights restoration process. It’s an Alice-in-Wonderland bureaucratic odyssey that ends in a humiliating moment where supplicants stand in the Capitol begging the fickle Governor and Cabinet members, “Please, sir, may I have a vote?”
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Florida is only one of four states still holding onto this unseemly scenario, which is as much a vestige of our racist Southern past as a KKK uniform tucked up in the attic. This process started about 150 years ago, with African Americans disproportionally convicted by a racist legal system and robbed of their right to vote as a means to suppress their participation in state affairs and bolster white supremacy.
On Nov. 6, Florida voters rejected this throwback process for felon voting restoration in favor of an automatic one, like most other states employ. It is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 8. But now, DeSantis says he wants legislators to produce a bill next spring. That’s setting up a Titanic Tallahassee Tussle.
When word came out about these new developments last week, various versions of “Oh, hell no!” echoed across our sunny state.
“This is non-negotiable,” Florida Democratic House Leader Kionne McGhee said on Twitter.
Florida Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson, of Jacksonville, threw shade, reminding DeSantis that Amendment 4 “was endorsed by 64 percent of the voters, an overwhelming margin much greater than the 49.7 percent by which he won his own election to the governor’s office.”
If Republicans are planning to drag this out until March, it will have some troubling political consequences. Vote-by-mail and early voting for mayoral races in several large municipalities throughout the state will be under way.
“A delay would be in direct opposition of the will of Florida voters,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida Interim Executive Director Melba Pearson said in a statement.
Listen: I know most us wish that political battles ended on Election Day, or when a landmark law finally gets passed, but they don’t. Think of the incremental court wins and losses in the civil-rights movement, in women’s suffrage, in every battle for reforms that threaten the powers that be. So even when we hold a popular vote, even when we meet that extra threshold of a 60 percent majority needed to pass a Florida Constitutional amendment, we’re not necessarily finished fighting.
To make matters worse, we often end up paying our tax dollars for government lawyers to fight against us. That’s what’s happening in the case of the Water and Land Conservation Initiative, where voters directed that the state spend a portion of the money it already collects on real-estate transactions to buy conservation land. That amendment got 75 percent of the vote — more than any candidate on the ballot that year. Yet we’ve been paying for agency lawyers and pricey contracted private firms to fight us in court for years.
The old complaint among Florida’s chattering political class about making amendments to the state Constitution was that the Constitution was a sacred document that shouldn’t be messed with.
That stern muttering was oft-heard back in the days when political norms seemed to make sense in this state, when separation of powers and due process and fair debate were actual goals. In this mercenary landscape of self-dealing narcissists that we now inhabit, things look a lot different.
Constitutional amendment petition drives are happening because a frustrated public needs a way to get around the special-interest stranglehold on our state office-holders. Amending the state Constitution is the only form of direct democracy available to us. And, as we can plainly see, even that doesn’t always work.
The powers that be want us to lose confidence in this process. They want us to believe that our vote doesn’t matter, and they want us to lose faith in democracy, because real democracy doesn’t work for them. What works for them? Authoritarianism, oligarchy, racism, fear, doubt and xenophobia. The only check against that entitled, divisive world view is us.
So now we have to do our hard work as citizens: Stand up for what we believe, and muster the stamina to see it through.
Julie Hauserman is editor-in-chief of the nonprofit online state news site, The Florida Phoenix, which has a staff of veteran reporters in Tallahassee. A longer version of this op-ed appears on the site.