This post was also published in South Florida Sun Sentinel.
The 2019 Florida legislative session ended May 4 — and not a moment too soon. Floridians’ civil rights and civil liberties would be better off if the session had ended weeks earlier.
In just 61 days, the Florida Legislature managed the monumental feat of unraveling and undermining decades of progress. The Legislature is deeply divided and there were many who stood up for the freedoms guaranteed to all of us by the U.S. Constitution, but this year’s session was characterized by unrelenting and cynical attacks on the values we share.
The most egregious example came when the Legislature dramatically restricted Amendment 4, the landmark constitutional amendment approved by voters just last year.
In 1868, the Florida Constitution was changed for unambiguously racist reasons to permanently deny the right to vote to individuals with felony convictions. In 2018, 65 percent of Florida voters supported second chances and passed the amendment to restore voting rights to 1.4 million friends, family and neighbors. In May 2019, the Florida Legislature decided that it preferred living in 1868.
No legislative action was necessary at all. The amendment was self-executing and, for five months, it has been. Amendment 4 went into effect Jan. 8, and since then tens of thousands of Floridians have registered to vote under it without issues or legislative action. The Legislature went out of its way to insert itself into the issue, one which it had ignored for the preceding two decades. It injected itself solely to undo decades of hard work by everyday Floridians who pushed for change. And then it adopted a bill that could deny hundreds of thousands of returning citizens the right to vote, in defiance of Floridians’ will and in spite of Amendment 4’s text.
Worse yet, the bill says that otherwise eligible people will now be denied voting rights if they owe court fees or have civil liens. That resurrects an old, discredited and thoroughly harmful trope — that your ability to vote should be based on the size of your bank account. In America, no one should be denied access to the ballot box—and therefore excluded from broader community life — just because they lack financial resources. No other person in Florida is denied the right to vote because they have a civil lien. Denying returning citizens the ballot because they owe money creates a two-tiered democracy, and that is wrong.
The Legislature’s determination to attack civil rights went well beyond Amendment 4.
Sitting in Tallahassee, legislators decided to set the law enforcement priorities of every city and county in the state. Legislators are requiring local police to volunteer for routine, front-line immigration enforcement and insisting they divert their local resources to do so, regardless of other issues they may face in their communities.
This wholesale attack on the treasured idea of local control is effectively a mandate for unbridled racial profiling, unconstitutional behavior, and the separation of families from their children. Local police will be required to comply with requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), no matter how sloppy, overzealous, ill-informed, illegal, unconstitutional, or factually wrong those requests may be.
Hundreds of American citizens have already been wrongly detained in Miami-Dade County alone because ICE’s desire to harass immigrants outweighs its commitment to civil liberties, constitutional principles or sound investigative work; the Florida Legislature’s action means that a similar pattern is guaranteed in the state’s other 66 counties.
On voting rights and immigration, the Legislature chose to traffic in misinformation and extremism in order to go back to a time before the constitution protected the rights of all people, and that is shameful.