Op-Ed

Florida Legislature imposed a poll tax on ex-felons seeking to vote. It’s racist and it’s wrong — and DeSantis should reject it | Opinion

Wesley Tunstall was one of many people who registered to vote in Florida after Amendment 4 went into effect.
Wesley Tunstall was one of many people who registered to vote in Florida after Amendment 4 went into effect. AP

Nobody wants to be judged forever by their worst day.

This is a fundamental truth, and in theory, one reflected in our system of justice. All but the most egregious of offenders will one day re-enter society — expected to live, work and abide by the law.

But just because it’s true doesn’t mean it’s happening.

Our justice system is often flawed, discriminatory, and unforgiving. To make it out and stay out of the criminal justice system is a heroic feat for many citizens born disadvantaged by their ZIP code or circumstances.

But it does happen — in fact, it has happened in my own family.

I’m the fifth of seven children and the first in my family to graduate from high school.

While I had my intergenerational poverty interrupted at the hands of a good public education, many of my friends and some of my older siblings had their futures interrupted instead by mistakes that sent them into the criminal justice system.

From their experience, I know that re-entering society as an ex-felon is a scarlet letter that shows up everywhere — jobs, housing and credit. That’s one of the reasons that, as the mayor of Tallahassee, I “banned the box” during the hiring process. We said if you’re qualified, and your record isn’t disqualifying, we aren’t going to ask if you’re an ex-felon. These were some of our best employees.

It’s also why Florida’s Amendment 4, passed last year with 64.5 percent of the vote, is so important to me. Amendment 4, now in our Florida Constitution, grants ex-felons the right to participate in our democracy. It was a giant leap forward, fueled by a bipartisan grassroots effort, not big money or political parties.

To understand this giant leap forward, we need to know why it was necessary.

In 1885, racist and segregationist lawmakers re-engineered our state to their liking by implementing a poll tax and banning convicted criminals from ever voting at all. This drastically reduced turnout and collapsed our state into the hands of the hateful few for generations. And we are still dealing with its destruction.

About 1.5 million Floridians were prevented from voting last year — and more than one in 5 black citizens. To put that into context, my race for governor was decided by a rounding error — less than 34,000 votes.

But that didn’t stop Amendment 4 from passing with flying colors. In fact, it outpaced me by more than 1 million votes. It outpaced our current governor, Ron DeSantis, by more than a million votes, too.

The outcome reflected the reality that ex-felons aren’t uniform in color, creed or region. They are our brothers and our sisters. And by law, they are part of our citizenry and deserve to be represented.

Which is why what just happened in our Florida Legislature is so wrong — and so familiar.

Lawmakers just passed a law to roll back the self-executing language of Amendment 4 that automatically restores voting rights of most Floridians who have completed their sentences. Inexplicably, they’ve taken the including “parole or probation” language to include restitution — or money.

So, instead of allowing the automatic restitution that voters intended, they’ve thrown up another roadblock — a poll tax for ex-felons to get their rights back. It’s wrong, transparent and blocking the will of voters.

This is nothing new. The Florida Legislature has made a habit of subverting the will of voters — on education funding, medical marijuana and transportation. But this latest abuse is extraordinarily awful.

This bill is unworthy of the governor’s signature. It’s unworthy of the rich diversity of our state, and its passage marked one of the Florida Legislature’s worst days.

One that, by their own measure, should convict these lawmakers for the rest of their days.

Andrew Gillum, former mayor of Tallahassee, was the 2018 Democratic candidate for Florida governor.

  Comments