Last November the people of Florida voted for democracy by restoring voting rights of people convicted of crimes. In a landslide vote, Amendment 4 passed with overwhelming support—65% of the electorate voted to reject the Florida statute that had been ushered in during the Reconstruction era for the express purpose of denying voting rights to freed slaves. With its passage of Amendment 4, over 1.4 million citizens were to have their voting rights immediately restored. It was an impressive show of solidarity with people who had been convicted of crimes and served their time.
In response to this strong support for democratic inclusion the Republican-led legislature and Governor DeSantis, also a Republican, have done all they can to undermine the voters’ decision. They have created a two-tier electoral system that amends the voter initiative to require that all fees owed by ex-felons be paid in full before they can actually register to vote. This denies the vote to the poorest ex-felons and is the equivalent of a poll tax.
The ACLU of Florida has filed suit against the Desantis law, litigation that the Hawkins campaign applauds, and they point out that this two-tiered system is unconstitutional. It is made worse because Florida has sharply increased monetary penalties on people in the criminal justice system in order to finance its basic government functions. People often emerge from the system with not just a conviction but mountains of debt that they cannot hope to pay. Poverty and low income should not be used as barriers to voting.
DeSantis and the state legislature did not stop with undermining the passage of Amendment 4. They took actions to further undermine democracy for all Florida voters. Through a backroom deal, they tacked on measures to an unrelated tax bill that would make the initiative process substantially more difficult and levy severe financial penalties against individual petitioners for even making minor clerical mistakes.
Voter initiatives which allow voters to put issues on the ballot are important to US democracy as representative democracy has significant shortcomings that prevent important issues from being considered. One of the major flaws in US governance is that the Supreme Court treats money as speech. This allows money to dominate elections and in so doing, dominate elected officials. As a result, if current policies are not working but make a lot of money for big business interests, they do not get reconsidered by the legislature. We see this with the lack of consideration of single-payer healthcare, where insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, and for-profit health providers oppose single-payer but the people support it. We also see it with the power of the oil and gas lobby preventing action to prevent climate chaos. The initiative process needs to be made easier so people can express themselves with direct democracy — a people’s vote on issues.
We applaud the people of Florida for giving felons the right to vote. We think voting is an important part of bringing formerly incarcerated people back into society. Felon disenfranchisement just alienates the formerly incarcerated more. Indeed, the Hawkins campaign goes further. We support people who are currently in prison being able to vote. Prisoners vote in both Vermont and Maine. At least 16 democratic countries allow prisoners to vote, including Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, and Ukraine. Allowing prisoners to be part of democracy is part of their rehabilitation and makes them part of our society.
Similarly, we need to make voter registration easier by putting in place universal voter registration so the government takes on the responsibility of registering people to vote when they reach the legal age. This registration can be done as part of high school graduation, admission to college, any interaction with government agencies like departments of motor vehicles, and same-day voter registration on Election Day. Universal voter registration also means government stops the practice of purging registered voters from voter lists without valid cause. The US should strive for 100 percent voter registration. Related to this, voting should be made easy by holding elections on weekends or creating a holiday for voting and by making sure waiting lines for voting are short by having enough voting precincts and machines. Congress must also restore the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the US Supreme Court in 2013. These provisions required prior approval from the Attorney General that ensures the state’s actions do not discriminate against protected minorities. It is precisely in the covered jurisdictions with histories of racist voter suppression like several counties of Florida where laws have recently been enacted to suppress the vote.
These are some of the many democratic reforms that are part of the Hawkins campaign agenda. The United States needs more democracy, not less.