A September 11 appeals court ruling allowed Florida to bar hundreds of thousands of residents with former felony convictions from registering to vote if they owe money as a part of their sentences. Over the following six days, news coverage by TV stations in Florida’s markets mostly failed to explain that the state is making it nearly impossible for these residents -- who are disproportionately Black -- to find out how much money they owe, effectively barring them from voting forever even though Floridians overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to reinstate their voting rights.
Amendment 4 passed in 2018 with nearly two-thirds support from Florida voters, restoring voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million people who had been convicted of felonies but had completed their sentences, except for people convicted of murder or sex felonies. But in May 2019, Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature undermined the amendment and passed a law requiring these residents to pay all “court fees, fines and restitution” associated with their sentences before they could register to vote. Even then, and months before the new ruling, Florida’s lack of a system to track these financial obligations was covered in the media.
The GOP law led to court battles, the most recent decision of which came from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on September 11, when it “ruled that hundreds of thousands” of Floridians who had been convicted of a felony and served their time but “who still owe fines and fees may not register to vote, making it unlikely that they will be able to cast ballots in the upcoming presidential election.” This decision — by a panel of judges mostly appointed by President Donald Trump — disenfranchised an estimated 774,000 people, about 28% of whom are Black, less than two months before the 2020 presidential election.
Responsible media coverage of the ruling explained that Florida still lacks a system to tell these residents how much money they owe. The Washington Post reported that affected residents and voting rights advocates “argued that the state has no system in place for people to find out what their debts are after they are released from prison.” And a Post editorial noted that “the system is so opaque, many felons themselves do not know whether they owe anything.”
But Florida’s television news coverage of the ruling was irresponsible. A search of the Kinetiq video database turned up 80 news reports about the appeals court ruling from local TV stations between September 11 -- the day of the ruling -- and September 17. The markets with the most coverage included: Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne, Ft. Myers-Naples, Tampa-St. Petersburg (Sarasota), and Jacksonville, with 10-20 reports per market. Tallahassee’s market had 8 reports. But the remaining Florida markets had little coverage of this ruling: Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, Gainesville, West Palm Beach-Ft. Pierce, Mobile-Pensacola (Ft. Walton Beach), and Panama City all had a paltry 2-5 reports each.
Less than half of the reports mentioned that about three-quarters of a million Floridians were disenfranchised by the ruling. The vast majority of these TV news reports, such as this one from Sinclair Broadcast Group-owned CBS affiliate WPEC in West Palm Beach, conveyed minimal information about the ruling’s impact to their viewers.
Only one report that aired during this time period, from ABC affiliate WFTV in Orlando, explained that the ruling disproportionately affects Black Floridians.
Seventeen of the reports, or 21%, mentioned that the residents affected by this ruling are having financial difficulties paying the money they owe in order to register to vote.
And just a scant five reports, or 6%, noted that the state of Florida has no working way to tell people what they owe. And three of those came from the Tampa Fox affiliate WTVT.
Many legal and voting rights experts denounced this unjust ruling, but these criticisms were mostly absent from Florida’s TV coverage:
- Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, stated: “This ruling runs counter to the foundational principle that Americans do not have to pay to vote. The gravity of this decision cannot be overstated. It is an affront to the spirit of democracy.”
- Paul Smith, the vice president of the Campaign Legal Center, said: “Nobody should ever be denied their constitutional rights because they can’t afford to pay fines and fees.”
- Sean Morales-Doyle, the deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Voting Rights and Elections Program, called the ruling a historic mistake which “tells the State of Florida that it’s legitimate to put a price tag on voting. Worse, the Court says it’s okay to do so even when Black Floridians owe more than their white counterparts, and even when many can’t even determine how much they owe and to whom.”
- Leah C. Alden, the deputy director of litigation for the NAACP Defense and Educational Fund, called the ruling “outrageous, and directly contrary to overwhelming public desire.” She also noted that it “disproportionately harms Black returning citizens in Florida. This decision sanctions Florida’s ability to require a long-prohibited poll tax to vote.”
- Scott Lemieux, a political science lecturer at the University of Washington who writes for the blog Lawyers, Guns & Money, called the ruling “pro-Jim Crow” in a Twitter thread and said the opinion “starts off by blatantly lying about” Amendment 4.
- And Mark Joseph Stern, who writes about law and the courts for Slate, started off a Twitter thread by calling the ruling “one of the most dishonest, misleading, and despicable voting rights opinions I have ever read. It is shockingly bad—an affront of the very notion that Americans have a right to vote.”
- Stern also said it was “an incredibly dark day for voting rights” and that the ruling “was inevitable after Trump flipped the 11th Circuit by appointing five judges, all of whom joined today's appalling opinion.”
- Stern concluded by stating that the court “is lying to us. It is lying to you. This is cowardly, abominable gaslighting.” He also asked, “How we are supposed to have confidence in our court if judges feel they can lie to us in the service of disenfranchisement.”
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Kinetiq video database for all local Florida television markets from September 11 through September 17, 2020, for news coverage of the court decision on the corporate broadcast affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox Broadcasting Co. We searched for variations on the words “felon, ” convict," or “voting” within close proximity of “election.” We also looked for mentions of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
We coded segments for mentions that Florida cannot tell affected residents the amounts they owe, that many of these residents have financial difficulty paying the amounts they owe, and that the ruling disproportionately impacts people of color. We excluded nationally syndicated programs and teasers.