In Florida, Protesting Can Cost You Your Right To Vote

Above Photo: Jamil Davis, Florida State Coordinator for the Black Voters Matter Fund. TCAC.

A new state law could create a protest-to-disenfranchisement pipeline and undermine collective power.

Delilah Pierre first got involved with the Tallahassee Community Action Committee (TCAC) in 2019, during a campaign to stop the capital city from building a new police headquarters in the same shopping center as the only grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Today, as Vice President of the grassroots organization, she has her sights set on taking down larger forces: A state law that levels felony and misdemeanor charges against protesters like her, and prevents them from posting bail until their first court appearance.

Governor Ron DeSantis signed Florida House Bill 1, the Combating Public Disorder Act—also known as the “anti-riot” bill—into law in April, following Senate approval along party lines. Under the new law, gatherings of three or more that “breach the peace,” are considered third-degree felonies, punishable by up to five years in prison. The act of damaging memorials—including those to the confederacy—with a larger group of people could land protestors a second-degree felony charge, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

If this law were on the books during the summer 2020 uprisings, thousands of people in Florida could have been arrested and fined—and if they were ultimately sentenced for rioting, they could have also lost their right to vote. Pierre calls this law “nasty,” in part, because in addition to vastly increasing law enforcement’s power to crack down on civil unrest, she says it’s an obvious attempt to further strip Floridians of their voting rights, a constitutional right that Florida’s leadership has eroded significantly in recent years. Just weeks after passing the anti-protest law, DeSantis signed Senate Bill 90 into law, an election “accountability” measure that limits the duration of requests for vote-by-mail ballots, makes ballot drop boxes less accessible, and prohibits citizens who aren’t poll workers from handing out water to voters.

S.B. 90 and H.B. 1 working in tandem could compound the disenfranchisement Black and brown Floridians have experienced for decades in the state. Abdelilah Skhir, Voting Rights Policy Strategist at the ACLU of Florida, believes the danger of these two policies working together has been overlooked.

“Putting deliberate barriers up to voting and criminalizing protests work hand in hand,” Skhir said. “H.B. 1 creates enhanced penalties and unnecessary felony provisions. In Florida, if you have a felony conviction and an unpaid fine, you’re not able to vote. So not only are you making it harder to vote at the front end, but you’re also making it easier to get that felony conviction.”

Florida is one of 11 states where voting rights are not automatically restored following release from prison or completion of parole or probation. The state additionally requires that all fines and fees from the legal process be paid before the state considers a person totally free and able to vote.

H.B. 1 creates a chilling pipeline, and could be deemed an infringement of Floridians’ First Amendment rights in a federal lawsuit against the state filed by several civil rights groups: The ACLU of Florida, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Community Justice Project. The first hearing will take place on August 30 in Tallahassee in front of Chief Judge Mark Walker.

When he signed H.B.1, DeSantis called it “the strongest anti-riot, pro-law enforcement legislation in the country.” And it is. While other Southern states like Alabama have passed laws limiting where protests can be held, charging fees for cleanup costs, and paying local law enforcement, no law is as sweeping—or as potentially damning—as Florida’s H.B.1.

The new law also undermines the community’s collective power. In direct opposition to rallying cries to defund police, DeSantis has new permissions to take control of city budgets to block attempts at reducing funding for law enforcement.

The law also redefines the term “riot,” giving police the power to interpret what makes a gathering violent or dangerous:

“A person who participates in a public disturbance involving an assembly of three or more persons acting with a common intent to mutually assist each other in disorderly and violent conduct resulting in injury or damage to another person or property, or creating a clear and present danger of injury or damage to another person or property.”

Although supporters of H.B.1 promise that peaceful protests will not fall under these crackdowns, the open interpretation of “rioting” leaves the door open for the disparate criminalization of Black gatherings. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a global nonprofit analyzing political violence and protests, found that 93 percent of the protests of last summer were peaceful, while republican rhetoric of 2020 characterized many Black Lives Matter protests as “riots.”

“It’s a power grab from Republicans,” Pierre said. “It shows their fear of the consciousness that the Black Lives Matter protests brought, and the consciousness and willingness to take action that we’re seeing—not just from Black people, but from all people that believe in any kind of moral justice or rightness.”

Pierre and members of TCAC have been fighting against police corruption and brutality and for community control of public safety for years. The group has been at the forefront of supporting the #Tally19, 19 protesters who were arrested or targeted by police with warrants last September after what TCAC called a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest following a grand jury decision to not indict officers involved in the killings of three Black men: Tony McDade, Mychael Johnson, and Wilburn Woodard.

Organizers know they’re at risk—it’s part of their work. Some say they’re willing to risk prison time and their voting rights to continue their fight against efforts to undermine powerbuilding in Black and brown communities that showed up last year in record numbers in the streets and at the polls.

“We definitely don’t intend to just go digitally,” Pierre said. “We think that there’s power in having people in the streets and power in having people stand up. We’re going to try and be more careful, and try and make our intentions more clear so there’s less likelihood of arrests.”

Voter disenfranchisement for Black Americans in Florida has been a long-standing issue, especially for those with felony charges. In 2018, with 64 percent of the vote, voters passed Amendment 4, a ballot initiative that would have automatically reinstated voting rights for formerly incarcerated people with felonies—excluding murder or sexual offenses—so long as they completed their sentence, parole, and probation. Right up until the 2020 election, the law faced appeal after appeal. In response, DeSantis and the Republican-controlled state legislature passed Senate Bill 7066, requiring formerly incarcerated people to pay any restitution, fines, fees, or court costs, also known as legal financial obligations, before regaining the right to vote. Some formerly incarcerated people have reported owing tens of thousands of dollars, which can be nearly impossible to pay, as felony records make it increasingly difficult to earn a living wage. Despite legal battles, S.B. 7066 still stands.

Voting rights advocates immediately called out the law as a Jim Crow poll tax that compounds the economic inequality many formerly incarcerated individuals already face. Even worse: Florida doesn’t have a set system for tallying and collecting payments from formerly incarcerated individuals. People who are trying to pay these fines have to take the process on themselves, and even then, some counties only allow the amount to be paid in full—not to mention additional collections fees.

When DeSantis signed the poll tax into law, he doubled down on its intent to disenfranchise. “I think this was a mistake and would not want to compound that mistake by bestowing blanket benefits on violent offenders,” DeSantis wrote in a letter to the Florida Secretary of State.

Since then, DeSantis has flip-flopped his views of the electoral process, ultimately landing back on his party’s commitment to make voting increasingly hard, especially in light of protests and record turnout in 2020.

Skhir said these actions are part of a nationwide trend of legislators creating deliberate barriers to voting rather than protecting that freedom.

“And it’s important to note that these barriers aren’t new, but are being pushed because voters of color turned out in high numbers during the 2020 election and historically they’ve been the most impacted by these changes,” he said.

In June 2020, protesters in Tennessee fought against a similar voter disenfranchisement law that made it a felony to set up tents overnight at the capitol, an act that critics called a nod to Tennessee’s Jim Crow past. Nearly 21 percent of the state’s Black residents are barred from voting because of Tennessee’s own felony voter restoration laws and similar barriers to paying off court fees and fines.

Now, Florida Democrats are fighting for President Joe Biden to pass the For the People Act, a sweeping election reform bill that would help GOP-stronghold states like Florida end partisan gerrymandering, wipe out the filibuster, implement automatic voter registration, and restore the Voting Rights Act in full.

DeSantis, an avid Trump supporter, was one of few state governors who did not give into “the big lie” about election fraud in 2020—to the contrary, the state’s elections went so smoothly, they gained praise from DeSantis himself. “Rather than us being the Bush v. Gore of 2020, we’re now being looked at as the state that did it right and that other states should emulate,” DeSantis said the day after former President Donald Trump was declared winner in Florida.

But the governor’s demeanor towards the electoral process suddenly shifted in the spring of 2021. In May, he said that he wanted to get rid of drop boxes altogether, and then signed S.B. 90 into law live on Fox News, prohibiting journalists from other networks and publications from being present. S.B. 90 eliminates 24-hour drop boxes, which many counties used in the 2020 election, and makes it so that hours of availability may vary by county.

“It’s the equivalent of having an ATM available to you to use, but only while the bank itself is open,” Skhir said.

At the signing, DeSantis claimed the legislation was going to improve election security.

“We had 11 million votes counted by midnight, 99 percent,” DeSantis said. “We think this will make it even better going forward.”

As the ink dried on S.B. 90, The League of Women Voters of Florida joined Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, the Black Voters Matter Fund, and many other organizations in filing lawsuits. Patricia Brigham, President of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said the law targets those with disabilities, students, the elderly, and communities of color.

This May, a year after “Defund the Police” became a nationwide rallying cry, DeSantis gave a $1,000 bonus for every first responder in the state of Florida. “Some want to defund the police, we’re funding the police and then some,” DeSantis said. Other republicans—and some moderate democrats—started blaming election losses and crime rates on calls to defund police departments.

But no one has gone as far as DeSantis and the Florida legislature have in giving police more permission to crack down on protests. And it remains to be seen how the anti-riot bill might be enforced in the future—and whether some protesters will be targeted more than others.

In late July, protests that blocked streets in South Florida lasted several days in solidarity with Cubans who took to the streets to demand better handling of COVID-19 on the island. And although DeSantis eventually called for protesters to stop blocking the roads, an action outlawed in his new anti-riot bill, there were only three reported arrests made during the demonstrations. DeSantis’ change in tone from statements made about last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations was stark.

“I think people understand the difference between going out and peacefully assembling, which is obviously people’s constitutional right,” DeSantis said of the July protests.

Florida’s young, Black grassroots organizers are preparing to fight anyway.

Jamil Davis is the Florida State Coordinator for the Black Voters Matter Fund, and is leading the organization’s corporate pressure campaign. In phase one of the campaign, the group took out full page ads in Florida newspapers calling on Florida corporations to use their influence to ask legislators to stop H.B. 1, S.B. 90, and other pieces of legislation. Phase two began on May 20 with the organization calling on Floridians to contact Publix, Disney, GEO Group, and Comcast/NBCUniversal—all companies that have donated to Florida politicians—demanding their aid in repealing both bills. The group plans to proceed with other phases, seeking to have three ballot initiatives approved for the next election.

While none of the corporations the organization called out in phase one have made a statement in support or opposition of the laws, the Black Voters Matter Fund plans to continue to put pressure on these companies. On June 18, the organization had a day of action in Tallahassee at the Florida Historic Capitol as part of their Freedom Ride 2021 bus tour. There are also protests planned in Jacksonville, Lakeland, and Orlando, where many of the corporation’s headquarters are housed.

Davis believes the new voting restriction law is a direct threat to the work he does to mobilize Floridians to the polls.

“The law is a solution looking for a problem that was never a problem,” Davis said. “These are laws that are specifically targeting marginalized communities, especially Black and brown communities, and the way that we presented ourselves at the ballots as well as how we presented ourselves as organizers.”

Lauryn Durrah leads Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University’s (FAMU) chapter of Dream Defenders, one of the named parties in the federal lawsuit filed in response to H.B.1, and member of the Tallahassee Dream Defenders. After transferring from a predominantly white institution to FAMU, a historically-Black university, she felt compelled to get involved with advocacy work.

“The law makes it definitely unsafe for a lot of Black and brown voters and then puts the reliance on Black and brown community members to educate other people, and that’s something that we had to go through even with this past election,” Durrah said. “Educating people on how to fill out the ballot, where to drop off the ballot, and the date that they needed to drop it off by. So the responsibility is definitely on us to make sure that they get around the loopholes.”

For Marie Rattigan, a graduate student in African American History at FAMU, “the fight is not over,” she said. Rattigan is the lead organizer for the Tallahassee chapter of Dream Defenders, an abolitionist group created in 2012 following the killing of Trayvon Martin. Rattigan joined the Dream Defenders in 2014, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman. “We will always step up for our community. This is who we are… It will take more than just the stroke of DeSantis’ pen for our legacy to end.”

Rattigan, like many other Florida activists, is fully aware that arrests under this new law could result in lengthy prison sentences and the loss of voting rights. But she’s motivated to strategize and persevere despite efforts from the state to kill their movement.

“We’re not gonna give up, we’re gonna continue to fight the good fight,” Rattigan added.