• Devin Iorio

Examining Florida's repackaged poll tax

Carmen Brown weeps as she walks away holding a paper restoring her right to vote during a special court hearing in a courtroom on Nov. 8 in Miami. Image courtesy of: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/09/florida-felony-disenfranchisement-pryor-decision.html

The right to vote is the cornerstone of American democracy. Historically, however, this right has been systemically restricted to select portions of the population who were deemed worthy of wielding it. Over the years, the right to vote has slowly been extended beyond this “worthy” population by the efforts of marginalized groups who fought for access to their constitutionally guaranteed right to representation in government. This expansion was met with vehement opposition from those for whom the right to vote had historically been reserved. Both strategic and forceful measures were employed across the country to deter and prevent any such expansion from occurring. One such measure was the implementation of so-called poll taxes which developed in the 1890s, as a means of preventing Black Americans from exercising their recent enfranchisement. Nearly a century later, on Aug. 27, 1962, action was finally taken to address this method of discriminatory disenfranchisement when the United States Congress ratified the twenty-fourth amendment to the Constitution. This amendment ensured that the right of American citizens to vote would not be denied nor abridged by their failure to pay a poll tax.

In the present-day, new methods of depriving certain citizens of the right to vote have continued to exist and evolve. The most effective of these methods is the common practice of felon-disenfranchisement. Currently, all but four U.S. states or territories impose voting restrictions on current or former felons and as of 2020, an estimated 5.17 million people were disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. These restrictions are implemented in differing ways across the various states that impose them. Florida continues to restrict the right to vote for select members of the population on the basis of failure to pay specified costs. This adapted process, while presented in a repackaged form, effectively achieves the same ends as those which were originally constructed in the late nineteenth century: disenfranchising minority voters.

Under a Florida law passed in Oct. 2020, the restoration of voting rights to former felons is conditional on their payment of all their legal financial obligations. These obligations can be immensely expensive and include payment of all restitution, fees and fines. This measure has created a substantial barrier between impoverished Americans and their ability to participate in the democratic process. In a country where the abridgment of voting rights due to failure of payment was abolished nearly half a century ago, Florida has created a policy in which an individual’s financial status may dictate their ability to participate in the voting process at all.

Given the unfortunate realities of American society, Florida’s implementation of this reimagined poll tax has disproportionately harmed minority Americans, continuing the historic cycle of withholding influence from marginalized groups. Florida, like the country at large, currently imprisons minority, and specifically Black Americans at far higher rates than their white counterparts. This fact coupled with the statistically demonstrated racial wealth gap has culminated in a reality which places these marginalized groups as the burden-bearers of policy decisions such as Florida’s. Ultimately, in order to ensure that the enumerated rights of the Constitution are actually accessible to the entirety of the American population, a thorough and historically focused analysis of restrictive policies such as Florida’s voter disenfranchisement is both necessary and critical.