Last week, Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed SB 7066 into law, forcing former felons to pay “all restitution, fines, fees, or outstanding costs associated with the conviction” before having their right to vote recognized. The move is a direct assault on Amendment Four, which a large majority of Floridians approved last November and which reestablished voting rights for those same former felons.
The actions of DeSantis and the Florida state legislature show the limits of using the power of the ballot alone to try to expand participatory democracy. But they also highlight the unending struggle in the United States for even basic democratic rights.
Immediately, voting rights activists decried the bill as a “poll tax,” and civil rights groups filed lawsuits seeking to overturn it. The invocation of the term “poll tax” is not only a rhetorical tool designed to reveal the measure’s cruelty. It also reminds us of the long history in the United States of purportedly non-racist laws that disenfranchise African Americans.
The History of the Poll Tax
Much of the modern understanding of the intersection of voting rights, citizenship, and race can be traced back to the Reconstruction period. In 1865, with the collapse of the Confederacy and the end of the Civil War, Southern legislatures passed “Black Codes” designed to keep newly freed African Americans as close to slavery conditions as possible. One of South Carolina’s Black Codes simply read, “All persons of color who make contracts for service of labor, shall be known as servants, and those with whom they contract, shall be known as masters.”
Radical Republicans in Congress responded by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and eventually the Fourteenth Amendment, defining citizenship as including African Americans. The push for the Fifteenth Amendment by 1870, which removed voting restrictions based on skin color, was another attempt to ensure African Americans had the proper legal, civil, and political powers to stave off another form of Black Codes.
This is all to set up how Southern governments, “redeemed” back to white supremacist leadership during the 1870s, began to consider how to disenfranchise African Americans. Thanks to the Fifteenth Amendment, race could not be the explicit reason — although everyone knew that was the goal. As governor, and later senator, of Mississippi James K. Vardaman stated, their 1890 constitutional convention “was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics.” Other means of subterfuge, however, had to be used to strip African Americans of their right to the franchise.
Measures like literacy tests or grandfather clauses became acceptable ways to destroy African Americans’ voting power. But poll taxes were perhaps the most insidious of all. Many Southern states would only allow people to cast a ballot if they had paid a tax months in advance of Election Day. Many of these laws smothered what semblance of democracy still existed below the Mason–Dixon line: not only were hundreds of thousands of African Americans no longer allowed to vote, but also many poorer whites lost their rights as well.
Ruling-class whites — intent on upholding both white supremacy and the region’s repressive labor regime — regarded this as acceptable collateral damage. As historian C. Vann Woodward noted in his 1953 classic The Origins of the New South, white political leaders in the South were more than aware that a poll tax would shrink the white electorate. Woodward quotes a poll-tax supporter in Louisiana praising Mississippi’s poll-tax system, which put “the political control of the State in the hands not of a minority of the voters alone, but of the minority of the whites.”
That the emergence of the poll tax coincided with the rise and fall of the Populist movement in the South is not a coincidence either. It is easy to overstate the power of this cross-racial alliance in the 1890s, but that very potential — which sometimes bore political fruit in states such as Georgia and North Carolina — was enough to worry conservative Democrats in the region. The poll tax played a pivotal role in limiting democracy and progressive economic reform across the South. Its eventual defeat was a key victory for civil rights activists in the twentieth century.
The Uncertain Future of Amendment Four
The passage of Amendment Four last November was a bright spot on an evening that, for many left activists, was at best a mixed bag. Andrew Gillum’s narrow defeat in the Florida gubernatorial race seemed to suggest that the enfranchisement of thousands of former felons could potentially tip the electoral balance of power in always politically contentious Florida. The amendment passed with a decisive 65 percent of the vote, a landslide that proved the bill enjoyed considerable support from a wide swath of voters. More than 1.4 million people in Florida suddenly had the opportunity to exercise their right to vote. (The unfortunate exceptions: those people who had been convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, whose suffrage rights remained restricted.)
Since his smashing electoral victory, Governor DeSantis and many leading Republican state legislators have found ways to slow down the amendment’s implementation against the wishes of progressives in the state. Central to this debate is whether the amendment’s enactment requires additional action from the legislature, or if the amendment’s approval last year was all the action required. The controversy over the amendment has caused prominent Republicans, such as Senator Dennis Baxley, chair of the State Senate’s Ethics and Elections Committee, to publicly press for changing state law so a two-thirds majority is needed to amend the constitution. Already, lawsuits are being filed to challenge the new bill that has weakened Amendment Four.
The passage of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964, which made poll taxes illegal in federal elections, was a triumph of the civil rights era that is sometimes overlooked. But with the GOP’s continued assault on voting rights, whether in the form of ID requirements or out-and-out poll taxes, such accomplishments can no longer be taken for granted.
The right to vote for every American over the age of eighteen is a very recent phenomenon, and it can be circumvented by the courts or reactionary legislatures. Socialists and progressives must be vigilant against new poll taxes and other laws that weaken suffrage rights. Our fight is one for democracy — and that starts with giving everyone, felon or non-felon, citizen or non-citizen, the right to vote.