Erika Wood of the New York Law School has a very long and detailed article in the New York Times about Florida’s troubled history of denying voting rights to minorities, especially black people, and about the fact that recent laws passed in that state will disenfranchise potentially hundreds of thousands of minority voters — and could possibly even swing the election. First, some of the history:
There is a long and troubled history of voter discrimination in Florida. Florida became a state in 1845, but refused to extend civil and political rights to blacks immediately following the Civil War. In its 1865 constitution, Florida explicitly limited the right to vote to “free white males.” In 1866, it rejected the 14th Amendment which granted equal citizenship to freed slaves. As a condition of readmission to the Union, Congress required Florida to extend voting rights regardless of race. In response, Florida’s 1868 Constitution established a legislative apportionment scheme that diminished representation from densely populated black counties and put in place a lifetime voting ban for people with criminal convictions that targeted crimes for which blacks were most often convicted like larceny, perjury and bribery. These measures were followed in 1885 by a poll tax, giving the legislature “the power to make the payment of the capitation tax a prerequisite for voting.”
Throughout the Jim Crow era, African-Americans who tried to register and vote in Florida were harassed and intimidated, resulting in extremely low voter registration rates. In 1961, the United States Commission on Civil Rights documented several of these incidents…
The commission’s report presented corresponding statistics which showed that in the Florida counties with the highest black populations, the rates of black voter registration were the lowest in the state. In Gadsden County, one of two Florida counties where in 1960 blacks were the majority of the local population, there were 12,261 African-Americans of voting age, only seven of whom were registered to vote.
In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act to outlaw discriminatory voting rules and practices. Section 5 of the Act requires certain parts of the country, with particularly egregious histories of voting discrimination, to obtain approval from the federal government before making changes to their state election laws. Although Florida had a long history of voter discrimination, it was not originally covered by Section 5.
In 1975, Congress extended Section 5’s provisions and expanded its scope to address voting discrimination against members of language minority groups. After this expansion, five counties in Florida, which make up about nine percent of Florida’s total voting age population, now fall under Section 5 based on documented discrimination against language minorities. As a result, any changes to the state election code that will impact those counties must be “precleared” by either the Department of Justice or the federal district court in Washington.
And now the most recent efforts to diminish minority voting:
In March 2011, Governor Rick Scott rolled back the right to vote for hundreds of thousands – perhaps as many as a million – Florida citizens who have criminal records. Florida has long had one of the harshestfelony voting bans in the country, but Governor Scott not only reversed some moderate reforms put in place by former Governor Charlie Crist, he made the state’s policy even more restrictive than it was under the previous governor, Jeb Bush.Under the new rules, even people with nonviolent convictions must wait five years after they complete all terms of their sentences before they are allowed to apply for restoration of civil rights; the clock resets if an individual is arrested, including for a misdemeanor, during the five-year waiting period. In some cases, people must wait seven years before being able to apply, and then they must appear in person for a hearing before the clemency board in Tallahassee. Remember: all of this has to happen just to have the opportunity to ask for one’s right to vote back. After the waiting period, the application and the hearing, you could be denied restoration with no reason or explanation. And if that happens, you have to wait another two years before starting the process all over again.
Prior to Governor Scott’s changes, nearly a quarter of those disenfranchised in Florida were African-American. The new rules will most likely increase this number. For example, Florida law enforcement statistics show that nearly 35 percent of all arrests and 41 percent of drug arrests in Florida in 2010 were of African-Americans (African-Americans make up 16 percent of the state’s population). Consequently, the new “arrest-free” waiting period is likely to increase the impact on minorities.
In May 2011, Governor Scott signed an omnibus election law that makes it more difficult to register and to vote in Florida. The new law imposes severe restrictions and penalties on nonpartisan groups that register voters and slashes the number of days allowed for early voting, including eliminating the option of voting on the Sunday before Election Day.
These may seem like little technical tweaks, but in fact their impact could be dramatic. According to the League of Women Voters, African-American and Hispanic voters register to vote through community registration drives at twice the rate of white voters. Nearly 54 percent of Florida’s African-American voters used early voting sites in 2008. On the Sunday before the election, African-Americans accounted for nearly a third of the statewide turnout.
The new restrictions on voter registration groups include requiring every individual who registers voters on behalf of an organization to register his name and address with the state, and requires groups to turn in completed registration forms within 48 hours, or risk fines and penalties. As a result, the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote have shut down their voter registration efforts in the state. There has already been a significant drop-off in new voter registration. Last week, The Times reported that in the months since the new law took effect, 81,471 fewer Floridians have registered to vote than in the same period in 2008.
In January, the Okaloosa County Branch of the Florida N.A.A.C.P. registered several new voters on Sunday of Martin Luther King weekend. According to the Times, the group submitted the forms on Tuesday, Jan. 17, when the local elections office reopened. Soon after, the group was copied on an e-mail from the county supervisor of elections reporting that the forms were turned in an hour past the 48-hour deadline.
All of this is done in the name of fighting the virtually non-existent problem of voter fraud, which the right has trumped up with the fake ACORN scandals of 2008. And these effects are not bugs, they are features. This is all done quite intentionally. The entire purpose of those laws, regardless of the absurd justifications offered publicly, is to keep minorities from voting and make it more likely for the Republicans to win elections.