What do Florida’s proposed ‘poll tax’ and Louisiana’s nonunanimous convictions have in common? They silence Black voices.
This week, a Florida House committee approved a measure that could significantly curtail the gains of a state constitutional amendment that voters approved last November, restoring voting rights to about 1.5 million people with felony convictions. The measure passed along a party-line vote in the Republican-led committee. It would require everyone to pay all court fees and costs before becoming eligible to vote, even if the fines were not handed down by a judge as part of the sentence. A previous standard in Florida mandated only payment of restitution to restore civil rights. Voting rights advocates are outraged at what appears to be an effort to silence recently enfranchised people, especially people of color and those with low incomes. “It’s blatantly unconstitutional as a poll tax,” said Representative Adam Hattersley, a Democrat. But committee Chairman James Grant, a Republican, shot back, “To suggest that this is a poll tax inherently diminishes the atrocity of what a poll tax actually was.” [Justin Wise / The Hill]
People who completed “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation” had their voting rights automatically restored by the ballot initiative in January. The amendment does not apply to Florida residents convicted of murder or certain sex offenses, who are to be considered individually by the state’s Clemency Review Board. While arguing for the amendment, advocates said that completing a sentence could include paying fees and court costs. Neil Volz, political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said that “mistakes were made” when those advocates spoke before the court. [Justin Wise / The Hill]
Florida Republicans are also trying to carve out broad exceptions to who can regain the right to vote, fighting to expand the category of people exluded for “murder” to include those convicted of manslaughter, vehicular homicide, and attempted murder from ever voting again, Kira Lerner reported for The Appeal this week. The bill that advanced this week would not broaden the definition of murder beyond first- and second-degree offenses, but it would add dozens of sex-related offenses to the list of crimes that constitute “felony sexual offense,” such as trafficking and locating an adult entertainment store within 2,500 feet of a school. It’s possible that the state Senate could expand the definition of murder. [Kira Lerner / The Appeal]
Many advocates and lawmakers are concerned that if the amendment’s meaning is muddled, people might accidentally commit perjury by claiming to be eligible to vote when in fact they are not. One Florida prosecutor, Jack Campbell, said that as of now, he would not prosecute anyone for voter fraud: “I can’t exactly expect somebody to follow a law explicitly if I don’t understand what it says because I’m obviously more sophisticated than most people when it comes to criminal laws.” Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said that clarifying legislation might have a chilling effect on voter registration. “The bigger concern that I would have is that people who are in fact eligible might believe themselves not to be and decline to register as a result.” [Kira Lerner / The Appeal]
Another victory for criminal justice advocates last November was Amendment 2 in Louisiana, which eliminated the practice of nonunanimous jury convictions in criminal cases. But that amendment does not do anything for prior nonunanimous convictions, and this week, the U.S. Supreme Court said it would consider overturning one such conviction, which resulted from a 10-2 vote. The court will consider the case of Evangelisto Ramos, who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole after he was convicted in 2016 of second-degree murder. The court has held that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimous verdicts in federal criminal cases, but in 1972 held that states were free to allow convictions by nonunanimous juries. [Associated Press]
Why bring the case to the Supreme Court if the rule has been changed? G. Ben Cohen, one of the attorneys who brought the case, told The Daily Appeal that the nonunanimous jury rule “was constitutional treason,” and “this is about restoring constitutional fidelity to Louisiana and making sure that every voice matters.” The rule has been undermining the legitimacy of Louisiana’s constitution for 120 years, he added.
German Lopez explained some of the history for Vox: After the Civil War, Louisiana was forced to include Black people on juries. “Since Louisiana required juries to reach unanimous decisions, as is standard, this meant a single Black person on the jury would have a lot of power—which would weaken white Louisianans’ hold over the state, its government, and its laws.” The state, he writes, “found a workaround. As part of a constitutional convention in 1898 meant to ‘perpetuate the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race in Louisiana,’ it enacted a slew of Jim Crow measures,” one of which allowed for convictions after split juries. “This was part of the 1898 constitutional convention, which is famous for disenfranchising black voters,” said Lawrence Powell, a historian at Tulane University. [German Lopez / Vox]
“They didn’t use raw, racist language in the debates to justify the nonunanimous jury rule,” Powell said, even though “the whole constitutional convention was marinating in this kind of racist fluid.” This is how systemic racism works in contemporary America, Lopez writes. “Because policies seem racially neutral at face value, they slide under the radar even if in reality they result in racially disparate outcomes. There are all sorts of policies that we know have racially uneven outcomes—drug laws, traffic rules, voter ID requirements—but because they don’t explicitly invoke race, their supporters can argue that racism isn’t their intent.” [German Lopez / Vox]