By Rev. Kirk R. Bogen, Pastor, St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church
Last November, our faith in democracy was renewed when Floridians approved Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to 1.4 million fellow citizens who lost those rights following felony convictions. For those of us who strive every day to show the power of our vote and to protect our rights, the passage of Amendment 4 showed how the will of the people could overcome conservative state leaders who want to restrict voting rights. Through our votes, people who had paid their debt to society, worked hard to rebuild their lives and help support families and friends who had taken care of them during their time of need, would finally get back the full rights of citizenship — the right to vote.
But now, state lawmakers are trying to undermine the will of Amendment 4’s supporters with their decision to pass House Bill 7089 last week. The bill requires returning citizens to pay old fines or fees associated with their cases, including drug tests or electronic monitoring they were required to have upon release.
With the passage of this bill, the state legislature is effectively returning Florida to the ugly days of the Jim Crow South, when adults had to pay a poll tax before being allowed to vote. More than a half-century later, Florida’s state leaders are now imposing another “tax” before voting rights are restored. That’s not what we, the voters, decided. Amendment 4 called only for sentences to be completed.
As faith leaders, we are called to look to 1 Samuel 16:7: “Man looks at outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.” We understand that for society to move forward we must be willing to forgive and step up by examining the power of growth and second chances. HB 7089 is attempting to undo years of hard work by community leaders to restore voting rights to those who have paid their dues and are working to regain solid footing in society. Requiring them to pay again is immoral and problematic.
Unfortunately, this latest political move is true to form for the conservatives leading state government. Florida is already engaged in a legal battle regarding lack of voter information in Spanish for the American citizens who were displaced by Hurricane Maria. Efforts designed to restrict voting rights, primarily to people of color, are flawed and racist, and try to keep people down. This action reflects the unwillingness of Florida’s conservative-led legislature to leave behind the ugly past of racism.
This may seem like a defeat, but we must our lawmakers to honor the will of the people who spoke loudly last November to restore the rights of returning citizens with no strings attached. With one of the most pivotal election years on the horizon, we cannot run the risk of lawmakers attempting to add the same or similar stipulations for all citizens.
Image of Desmond Meade (center) courtesy of Facebook/Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.