But the real centerpiece of Scott’s and the GOP’s voter suppression efforts lay in their thirst to prevent the restoration of voting rights to convicted felons who have rehabilitated themselves. In Florida, convicts seeking their stripped civil rights long had to submit to an onerous, years-long process to get clemency from the governor. As The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins pointed out in August, Scott’s two immediate Republican predecessors extended clemency to nearly a quarter of a million Floridians in 12 years, but “Scott, in eight years, gave clemency to barely 3,000 felons.” (Those lucky few included twice as many whites as Blacks and more Republicans than any batch of restorations in the state since 1971.) The governor seemed to relish lecturing mostly Black felons at clemency board hearings that they hadn’t done enough to be full citizens in his eyes. “There’s no law we’re following,” he said in one hearing. “We get to make our decision based on our own beliefs.… There’s absolutely no standards, so we can make any decisions we want.”
Small wonder, then, that Floridians voted overwhelmingly in 2018 for a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to most felons who complete their criminal sentences. In fact, that ballot initiative got roughly a million more “yes” votes than Scott, DeSantis, or any other statewide candidate for office garnered that year. When it became law, Amendment Four gave voting rights to as many as 1.4 million Floridians—until DeSantis and the GOP legislature contravened the voters’ will by passing a law requiring felons to pay off all debts, fines, and fees to the court and their “victims” before they could vote. A federal judge tossed that law, but DeSantis appealed the ruling to a Trump-friendly court, where six Republican appointees outvoted four Democratic judges to uphold the de facto poll tax. One of those GOP judges, Barbara Lagoa, refused to recuse herself from the case, despite the fact that DeSantis had personally appointed her to the state Supreme Court in early 2019. Trump, who put Lagoa on the federal bench months later, also added her to his shortlist to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, on the characteristically cynical Republican assumption that floating a Cuban American justice would help clinch the state, which has a sizable Cuban American population, for Trump in November.
In addition to subverting the will of voters and making registration and voting more difficult, Florida Republicans pioneered the art of preemptively blasting elections as “rigged” against them. There was 2000 and the “Brooks Brothers riot” coordinated by recently convicted (and still more recently pardoned) Republican dirty trickster Roger Stone. But in 2018, Scott, too, declared victory in his Senate race before all the votes were counted, then argued to any TV pundit who would book him or his proxies that the only way he could lose was if corrupt local Democratic election supervisors and lawyers “steal it from him in court.” Once again, a successful Rick Scott Hail Mary has been adapted for Donald Trump’s 2020 playbook. “We want to make sure that the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be,” Trump told White House reporters before jumping on a plane for a rally in Jacksonville, the culmination of months spent bitching that he was powerless to stop some grand sinister electoral conspiracy against him. “The ballots—you know, that’s a big scam.” Only these idiot jamokes would try to argue that an election on their executive watch is rigged against them. But calling the legitimacy of a vote tally into question worked for Scott, and so maybe it can work again.
I can drive past a major intersection in the mostly blue South Florida city where I grew up and see “Pizzagate” and QAnon protesters angrily toting signs. It’s the same street corner where, years before, a rabid local group of Tea Partiers gathered with anti-Obama signs. From here, I can drive 10 minutes south, near my house, to the strip mall where the “MAGA bomber” once delivered pizzas out of his van; or I can drive a half-hour west to Parkland, where a 19-year-old murdered 17 high school students and staffers, including my former wrestling coach, two and a half years ago. “Democrats now need a landslide in South Florida to win the state,” The Washington Post’s David Weigel wrote in August, and it is true. That’s always the Democratic Florida strategy: running up huge numbers in the “blue” south. It’s rarely worked.