Florida Disenfranchises Minority Voters

Florida Disenfranchises Minority Voters April 11, 2012

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.


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  • Now look, Ed Brayton, the GOP loves democracy so much that it’s willing to sacrifice others (which as we all know is the greatest sacrifice of all), clipping off democracy’s limbs here and lungs there there to save it from itself. Wouldn’t you rather have a perfect semblance of democracy than a messy actual democracy? Of course you do! We all would.

  • You can have your ban from voting extended for being arrested, even if you aren’t charged, much less convicted? Has there been a constitutional challenge to this?

  • Captain Mike

    In its 1865 constitution, Florida explicitly limited the right to vote to “free white males.”

    Huh. Does this mean that in Florida in 1865 there were white males who weren’t free?

  • IANAL, but I see some pretty clear-cut violations of the Constitution here. Someone should be able to take a solid and obvious case to the Supreme Court, starting with an emergency injunction to prevent voters from being disenfranchised before the 2012 election.

  • Obviously if those people really wanted to vote, they would have had the decency to be born white.

    Next up, people on any form of public assistance won’t be allowed to cast ballots. Because they’ll just vote for people who will give them more of that welfare gravy (and government cheese).

  • laurentweppe

    IANAL, but I see some pretty clear-cut violations of the Constitution here.

    then

    Someone should be able to take a solid and obvious case to the Supreme Court

    Bwahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha

    The US supreme court has shown itself quite capable of enshrining violation of the constitution its members are supposed to uphold so long as said violations are arguably serving the interest of the upper-class

  • laurentweppe: I don’t doubt what you say — but even a losing appeal, if properly managed, would a) draw public attention to the coup attempt, and b) thoroughly discredit the Republican majority on the Supreme Court if they tried to uphold the restrictive laws.

    Besides, it’s better than not doing anything at all.

  • Next up, people on any form of public assistance won’t be allowed to cast ballots.

    Well, some wingnuts have already said, with no trace of shame or irony, that people who don’t own property should not be allowed to vote. So, yeah, they really are going there.

  • 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.

    So, if you’re from Miami, you have to travel hundreds of miles to Tallahassee just to petition to get your right to vote back?

    Gosh, if I didn’t know better, I’d say they’re deliberately making it as hard as possible.

  • Well, some wingnuts have already said, with no trace of shame or irony, that people who don’t own property should not be allowed to vote. So, yeah, they really are going there.

    Add to that women and college students. They haven’t yet openly declared that black people shouldn’t be allowed to vote, so I guess that’s progress, at least from the perspective of the late 19th century. But of course their attempts at disenfranchisement are all targeted at blacks, so they make up for it.

  • laurentweppe

    even a losing appeal, if properly managed, would a) draw public attention to the coup attempt, and b) thoroughly discredit the Republican majority on the Supreme Court if they tried to uphold the restrictive laws.

    I don’t think it’s a matter of “discrediting” the republican judges: there’s already more than enough evidence to make this case: at this point, the question is when will it become socially acceptable to say that the GOP is deliberately trying to rig elections because they know that they lost any hope to fairly win yet are still lacking the firepower to pull a coup and abolish the US Republic?

  • raven

    Fla. rep. alleges Communists in Congress

    Allen West says that up to 80 House Democrats are harboring a big secret, but he won’t name names.

    OT but related.

    Allen West, Representative from Florida has found 80 commies. Oddly enough, they aren’t under the bed or in closets, they are in…congress.

    Is there such a thing as being too crazy in Florida?

    BTW, this is silly. Commies are more or less extinct. The new commies are gays, Moslems, scientists, witches, and women. Representative West would have more credibility if he claimed there were 80 satanists or witches in congress and they were all Democrats.

  • doktorzoom

    Commies are more or less extinct.

    To steal a line from a Wonkette comment: The only communists anymore are vegans who think Tom Tommorrow is insufficiently liberal.

  • Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven

    In other news, water is wet.

  • dingojack

    OT alert… OT alert… OT alert…

    Azkyroth – are you now a shrinking toaster oven? 🙂

    Dingo

  • dcsohl

    I love how we like to pretend that when you get out of prison you’ve served your time and repaid your debt to society… and then do all sorts of crazy shit (like disenfranchisement) that massively increases the chances of recidivism. And continues to punish the person for essentially the rest of their life.

    They’re still citizens, right? Shouldn’t we treat them like citizens?

    I’m ambivalent about disenfranchisement while you’re actually in the clink, but when you get out (or, at the latest, when any probation period is over), you should get the right to vote back.

  • laurentweppe

    I’m ambivalent about disenfranchisement while you’re actually in the clink, but when you get out (or, at the latest, when any probation period is over), you should get the right to vote back.

    And increase the democrats advantage by five millions votes? disenfranchisment is not about high-minded principles: it’s about finding ways to rig the elections.