By Michael Moline
The book “Laboratories of Democracy” appeared in 1988, positing that individual states were poised to experiment with progressive policies that could transform the political landscape if adopted in other states or the national level.
A new edition might be called “Laboratories of Autocracy,” since Republican-run states these days are experimenting with ways to disenfranchise Democratic constituencies, stack the courts against progressive initiatives, and cement their control over this country one state at a time.
The dust cover could feature the smiling mug of Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, the Republican presidential candidate who since the Black Lives Matter summer three years ago has pushed an ever-more-reactionary campaign against marginalized communities, not least at the voting booth.
“We trust Floridians to make the best decisions for themselves and that that should not be solely placed in the hands of the government — and that is what is happening under this particular administration,” says Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder of Equal Ground, a community organizing group.
“We also believe that this particular administration is obviously being run under authoritarian rules. It is the entry point for legislation that is seeping into state legislatures across the nation. It is the breeding ground for what could be possible when it comes to restrictions, not just in Florida but everywhere else,” she continued during a telephone interview.
“We’re trying to do our best to warn folks about what that possibility looks like under a DeSantis presidency.”
DeSantis and the malleable Florida Legislature have cracked down on political protest, asylum seekers, the LGBTQ community, and women and trans men who might need abortions, among others.
He’s lashed out at progressive allies as well, including two elected state prosecutors he suspended from office over political differences involving abortion and trans rights. He even targeted The Walt Disney Co. over its mildest of rebukes over his “Don’t Say Gay” law, restricting even the mention of LGBTQ people in public schools.
“I would probably describe it as one of the most volatile states, given that every single civil rights issue is up for grabs in our Legislature,” Burney-Clark said. “We are actively working to hold onto democracy as our state is working actively to weaken the rights we have as Floridians.”
As might be expected, Floridians aren’t taking this lying down, which means litigation, which forced the Legislature this year to appropriate more than $16 million to cover the governor’s legal bills.
In elections litigation alone, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition sued the state in federal court in Miami alleging the state has erected barriers to felons hoping to regain their voting rights under 2018’s Amendment 4, which the organization sponsored.
The Legislature and the courts have interpreted that measure to require payment of any legal financial obligations, meaning fines, fees, and restitution, before felons can lawfully register, but the state still has no central database to let former offenders learn their status.
Separate litigation alleges the state’s voter registration form lacks eligibility requirements for those with criminal convictions and “creates confusion, impedes the organizations’ voter registration activities and puts people in danger of criminal penalties.”
Additional legislation over the past three years provides criminal penalties for people who submit absentee ballots on behalf of nonfamily members or provide food or water for people waiting in line to vote, although some of its worst aspects have been enjoined.
“I would assume that one of the goals of a government is to encourage citizens to participate in democracy, and we have to come up with ways to encourage our people to participate in democracy and not discourage our people from doing that,” Desmond Meade, founder of the coalition, told the Phoenix in a phone interview.
We’re still awaiting a court date on a lawsuit challenging the state’s requirements that a “wet signature” — one signed in ink — accompany any voter registration form. That would require people to register in person or by snail mail and not electronically or by fax. Voting rights groups argue that violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Another lawsuit targets barriers against groups staging voter registration drives. Former felons and non-U.S. citizens are barred from registering voters, subject to $50,000 fines. Voter-registration groups must collect information including drivers’ licenses, Social Security numbers, or signatures can’t retain that information to defend themselves against any subsequent complaints, in the face of civil and criminal penalties. There are additional fines for filing forms late with the state or county, to a maximum of $250,000.
A federal judge has enjoined enforcement of portions of the law.
Oh, and state law requires groups to give registrants a state-provided receipt containing the name of the applicant, the date the application was received, the name of the third-party voting registration group, the name of the person who accepts the registration form, the applicant’s political party, and the county where the applicant lives.
Problem: The state doesn’t have to provide these forms before Oct. 1. That’s put a definite crimp in voter-registration efforts ahead of an epochal presidential election next year.
“It slows the process and I think that was the intent of what they wanted to be done,” LaVon Bracy, director of democracy for Faith in Florida, told the Phoenix in July.
Vote by mail purge
The same law required people to register to vote by mail for every two-year election cycle, rather than every four years under the old law. According to Burney-Clark, that’s resulted in the purge of 4 million standing mail requests, including for 450,000 Blacks and 600,000 Hispanics.
Since the purge in Leon County in January, Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley’s office has collected 30,000 fresh requests. Alex Mosca, spokesman for Earley, estimated in a phone interview that as many as 60,000 were in place previously, including requests lodged during the height of COVID. Leon is home to Florida’s capital.
Local elections officials are doing what they can. Leon County will participate in National Voter Registration Day, setting up registration centers next Tuesday at county libraries and the three college campuses in Tallahassee — Florida State University, Florida A&M University, and Tallahassee Community College.
DeSantis frequently loses at trial but knows that higher-court judges — he’s appointed five of the seven sitting Florida Supreme Court justices and Trump appointees heavily weight the U.S Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit — are more likely to see things his way.
“We will win out on appeal, I guarantee you we will win that on appeal … just like we won almost anything out of Tallahassee on appeal; that’s just kind of the way the cookie crumbles,” DeSantis said after one court loss in 2021.
Barbara DeVane, a veteran progressive activist in Tallahassee, pointed to the imminent possibility that DeSantis’ Florida Supreme Court will overturn the state Constitution’s Privacy Clause’s protection for abortion access, even though an earlier court — in 1989, not long after the voters approved the clause in 1980 — unanimously upheld that access.
“I’m pretty sure we don’t have that protection of the courts being fair and following the law,” DeVane said. “Whenever the will of the people at the ballot box is suppressed, is restricted, you’re going very quickly down the road to a dictatorship.”
It’s misguided to see the voting restrictions separately from other attacks on marginalized people, including immigrants, LGBTQ people, not to mention public-school book bans, Burney-Clark argues. State law also imposes a whitewashed version of American history that doesn’t include systemic racism.
As if it were possible to teach history without the Dred Scott ruling, exclusion of domestic workers under New Deal social legislation, or residential redlining.
“Anyone with a beating heart that has a different ideology from that of the governor or who is out of alignment with what his beliefs are, you are a target in his quest for gaining more political power,” she said.
Equal Ground is among the litigants against the state’s latest congressional reapportionment map, which centers on a former Black-opportunity district in North Florida, one of four Black or Hispanic districts the Legislature did away with at DeSantis’ insistence. A state judge has ruled that the outcome violated the Voting Rights Act plus anti-gerrymandering language in the Florida Constitution; that decision is up on appeal.
The group also is organizing Black voters to personally get in the face of state agencies and lawmakers, having brought 200 people to the Capitol during this year’s legislative session and planning to double that in the regular session that opens in January.
Other organizing includes drafting form letters for individuals and organizations to petition state agency on policy.
“An empowered community is one that is engaged,” Burney-Clark said.
“People will try everything they can to express themselves in a peaceful, nonviolent manner. Because normally that works,” DeVane said.
“But we are not in a normal situation in this country and especially in Florida. The pressure builds up and finally people will get frustrated enough to go into the streets.”
Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.