Florida's Problems with Racial Politics Go Far Beyond Trayvon Martin
The fallout from the acquittal of George Zimmerman is just the most visible issue facing the state.
Just a few days before George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Florida Gov. Rick Scott's administration began a push to throw out a voting-rights lawsuit brought by a Hispanic advocacy group. And just hours after the Saturday-night verdict, state lawmakers restarted a tussle over the state's "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law. The actual mechanics of the Zimmerman verdict and the outcry surrounding it may be getting the most attention, but under the covers there's a lot more at stake in Florida's racial politics.
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The fight over voting rights in Florida goes back to last year, when the Scott administration attempted to purge voter rolls of potential noncitizens. In May 2012, Florida's secretary of state sent a list of nearly 2,700 possible noncitizens—down from an earlier list of nearly 200,000—to county election supervisors. The Miami Herald found that 58 percent of the list was Hispanic, and eventually over 500 of the people on the list were found to be citizens, and only about 40 noncitizens. Only six noncitizens on the list were found to have actually voted in elections. Sixty-seven county election supervisors elected not to continue the purge because they didn't trust the accuracy of the list. And the Justice Department ordered the purge to stop, saying in part that Florida had violated the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act, which mandates federal approval of changes to voting laws in certain counties.
This changed when the Supreme Court struck down a key component of the Voting Rights Act in June. Now, with the preclearance requirement at least temporarily out of the way, Florida is looking to restart its voter purge. Last Wednesday, Florida's secretary of state filed a motion to dismiss a suit filed by Mi Familia Vota Education Fund and two Tampa voters over the issue of preclearance. In a statement after the motion was filed, the secretary of state's spokesman said that "we fully intend to continue our efforts to remove noncitizens from Florida's voter rolls and anticipate doing so with plenty of time to prepare for the next general election."
State Democrats looking to repeal Florida's Stand Your Ground law don't have an easy path ahead of them, either. While the Zimmerman trial did not touch on the Stand Your Ground law that justifies the use of force in self-defense when there's a reasonably perceived threat, the law is coming up again in the verdict's aftermath. The law has tripled the annual rate of justifiable homicides in Florida.
And there is a strong racial element. In Florida, defendents claiming Stand Your Ground are more likely to prevail if the victim is black than if the victim is white. Defendants prevailed 73 percent of the time when the person killed was black, and only 59 percent of the time when the individual killed was white. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission is currently investigating the law in several states for racial bias. On Saturday, Florida's state senate's Democratic leader, Chris Smith, spoke out against the law, calling it "fuzzily defined and too broadly drawn."
But touching the law won't be easy: State Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Republican who sponsored the 2005 law, defended it after the Zimmerman verdict. And Sunday, Florida Republican state Rep. Carlos Trujillo told CBS Miami, "If [my family and I] are walking through the mall and someone attacks us, I should not have to retreat. I should be able to defend myself in any place or forum that I need to." In a further sign of the dificulty of actually changing the law, just recently the Florida's Republican House speaker, Will Weatherford issued a statement bemoaning "the liberal activists" who tried to use the shooting of Martin "as an opportunity to take our rights as Americans." "We stood our ground on Stand Your Ground," he said.
A verdict in the Zimmerman trial obviously was never going to neatly ease all racial tensions in Florida. But the months ahead in Florida politics promise to be particularly trying.