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Why the Hell Is the Supreme Court Allowing a New Poll Tax to Disenfranchise Florida Voters?

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Members of the US Supreme Court need to familiarize themselves with the Constitution of the United States. That document’s 24th Amendment, which was ratified by the states in 1964, eliminated economic barriers to voting by abolishing the poll taxes that had been used to disenfranchise Black Americans. When he witnessed the certification of the 24th Amendment on February 4, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared, “There can now be no one too poor to vote. There is no longer a tax on his rights. The only enemy to voting that we face today is indifference.”

Yet on July 16, 2020, the nation’s highest court failed to upend a lower court move that is preventing otherwise eligible citizens with felony records from registering to vote if they cannot afford to pay off old court fees and fines. The Supreme Court’s indifference to voting rights and to the Constitution has the potential to warp election results in a presidential election year where Florida is a critical battleground state because, as the Tampa Bay Times noted, it could “keep hundreds of thousands of poor felons from joining the voter rolls ahead of this year’s elections.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a stinging objection, wrote that the court’s refusal to prevent Florida’s Republican governor and legislature from blocking voting by those who cannot pay the fees “risks immense disfranchisement” under a scheme in which “nearly a million otherwise-eligible citizens cannot vote unless they pay money.” With support from Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, Justice Sotomayor describes the law that the high court allowed to stand as “Florida’s voter paywall.”

That paywall will remain in place through Florida’s August 18 primary and could disenfranchise voters in the November 3 presidential election if the conservative US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit fails to rule in favor of voting rights after it reviews the matter in late August.

The American Civil Liberties Union refers to Florida’s law as a “new poll tax.” And the fact that it has been allowed to stand by the US Supreme Court—even temporarily—has consequences that extend far beyond the Sunshine State.

Many Southern states adopted poll taxes after the Confederacy was defeated in the Civil War. This meant that even though the 15th Amendment specifically assured that former slaves had the right to vote, they were prevented from doing so by a wealth barrier. Poor whites in the South were also blocked from voting by poll taxes, as were citizens of a number of Northern and Western states. The 24th Amendment put an end to formal poll taxes. But it did not end other forms of disenfranchisement—including laws that prevented people with felony conventions from casting ballots. That was a big issue in Florida, as roughly 10 percent of the state’s adult population was disenfranchised.



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