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How Florida Republicans Keep Blacks From Voting

Ann Louise Bardach covers Florida politics for Slate and is the author of "Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana."

The worst-kept secret among Florida’s Republican elites is their dread of the African American vote. It is not an unfounded fear. In 2000, blacks in this crucial swing state voted for Al Gore in unprecedented numbers, a whopping 92%. Current polls indicate they are even less enamored with George W. Bush this time around.

State Democrats are abuzz with suspicions about how Gov. Jeb Bush and his handpicked secretary of state, Glenda Hood, will limit the effect of black voters Nov. 2. Though the state has cultivated several voting techniques that favor Republicans -- an emphasis on military and absentee ballots is one -- no issue has been leveraged as successfully as its restrictive policy on ex-felons. One reason is that the Sunshine State holds the dubious honor of having one of the nation’s largest felon populations, about 5% of its total.

Florida is one of seven states that imposes a lifetime ban on voting for ex-felons, barring an act of executive clemency. Currently, more than 600,000 ex-inmates, not including 82,000 in prison, are unable to vote in Florida. It is impossible to discuss this issue separate from race. In 2000, more than 58% of Florida’s ex-felons were African Americans.

A task force set up by Gov. Bush to recommend changes after the vote-count fiasco of 2000 urged that the voting rights of prisoners be automatically restored once inmates completed their sentences. But the governor refused to review the issue. No matter whether one’s crime was marijuana possession, check bouncing or drunk driving, a felon must negotiate a daunting obstacle course to win back the right to vote.

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It is a policy that disproportionately affects African Americans in the state’s prisons, the vast majority are serving time for drug offenses. Critics of the policy point out that had Gov. Bush’s troubled daughter, Noelle, been prosecuted for having falsified drug prescriptions or possession of crack cocaine instead of being placed in treatment--she would probably be an ex-felon today and unable to vote.

How critical is the felon issue in Florida? Last year, more than 54,000 felons were released or completed their parole in the state. In 2001, the ACLU and the Florida Justice Institute sued the state for failing to comply with a state law mandating that felons be provided voting-rights assistance upon completion of their sentences. In response, the state admitted that between 1992 and 2001 it had not provided the required assistance forms to 125,000 ex-felons. When a Florida appellate court ordered Bush to provide the forms, he responded by abolishing them.

In late August, the state’s Clemency Board informed the plaintiffs that about 15% of the ex-felons have had or will have their voting rights restored without a hearing. Randall Berg of the Florida Justice Institute says the remaining 85% will need a hearing before the board, which consists of Bush and two state Cabinet members. But that’s where the Kafka whiplash begins. The board meets only four times a year and then accepts just 50 cases. That means 200 ex-felons -- maximum -- get processed.

For the lucky ex-felons who get a hearing, any of the board members, all Republicans, have the right to deny petition without citing cause. There is no appeal process. In short, the brother of the president can decide who gets to vote in Florida. “There is only the court of public opinion,” said Peter Siegel of the Florida Justice Institute, “and Jeb Bush doesn’t seem to care about that.”

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Florida’s felon-voting laws have their antecedents in pre-Civil War laws that minimized the number of freed slaves on voting rolls. In 1838, the state criminalized a host of actions to the detriment of poor, uneducated freed slaves, along with a penal system to ensure they served long sentences. For instance, vagrancy and larceny were made felonies. The state’s felons would then permanently lose their right to vote unless they went hat in hand to the state’s Clemency Board.

Particularly troubling to Southern whites was passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868, which guaranteed blacks the right to vote. To ensure that blacks would not reward the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln with their votes, the Democratic-controlled Florida Legislature crafted a raft of statutes to keep blacks out of the polling booths.

After 1880, Florida adopted literacy tests to ensure that many blacks would be ineligible to cast ballots. There was the “grandfather clause” that rewarded voting rights only to people whose “grandfathers” had voted, which knocked more blacks off the rolls.

Another statute required voters to place eight individual ballots in eight separate ballot boxes, a rule intended to confuse black voters who had a 40% illiteracy rate in 1900. In 1889, Florida passed the first poll tax -- pay-to-play voting -- in the South, which remained in effect until 1938. In 1902, the state’s Democratic Party pushed through a “whites only” primary system.

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African Americans who fought for suffrage often faced violence. Florida set records for lynchings in the South through 1946. On election day in 1920, a white mob laid siege to the black town of Ocoee, not far from Orlando, after a black man, allegedly carrying a weapon, demanded his right to vote. The town was torched and a half-dozen residents killed.

In the late 1960s, as Florida Democrats embraced the civil rights movement, Republicans exploited the state’s felon laws to depress the African American vote. Seeking to redress past inequities, Democratic Gov. Reubin Askew changed Florida’s policy in 1975 to restore the voting right to felons once they completed their sentences. Gov. Bob Graham continued Askew’s policy. GOP Gov. Bob Martinez reinstated the lifetime voting ban on ex-felons in 1988.

But Democrats hardly have clean hands. In the 1990s, Gov. Lawton Chiles tightened the rules for ex-felons by eliminating certain crimes from clemency consideration. Gov. Bush has tinkered with the process to further restrict clemency and increase secrecy.

On May 5, Secretary of State Hood ordered the state’s 67 local election supervisors to begin purging “ineligible” voters from a list of 48,000 felons she had sent them. Hood insisted that the purge list be kept secret. Not until a state court ordered her to release the list in June did the media learn that Hood’s list contained names of mostly black men; there were 61 Latinos. And 2,100 names on the list had received executive clemency, according to the Miami Herald.

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Describing the errors as “unintentional and unforeseen,” Hood dropped her insistence that precincts use the flawed list.

In fact, Hood knew the list had serious problems from the get-go, according to a May 2 internal memo that detailed dozens of worrisome concerns.

Just how many ex-felons will make it to the polls on Nov. 2 remains unclear. Before Hood junked her felons list, supervisors in 14 counties -- including Brevard, Gulf and Wakulla -- had sent letters to people on it informing them they were ineligible to vote.

By law, those who fail to respond within 30 days can be purged from voting rolls. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University notified Hood that she was violating state and federal voter-registration laws and successfully argued that county election supervisors should alert those they had previously purged. It has also sued to challenge the constitutionality of the state’s felon voting laws, and a federal appellate-court panel agreed with the plaintiffs. The case will be heard by the full court a week before the election.

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Only the most motivated, proactive ex-felons are expected to surmount the hurdles to win back their voting rights. Considering that the majority of the state’s former inmates come from poor, often uneducated families, only a small fraction will probably ever see a voting booth again.

And that suits the state’s Republican Party just fine.


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