Next year, Florida voters may finally right a wrong first perpetrated 150 years ago by racist state legislators who were desperate to deny equality to African Americans. Voters may enfranchise almost 1.6 million fellow Floridians; or they may retain an approach that long-dead white supremacists conceived to disenfranchise blacks, an approach that is still spectacularly successful at diluting their political power.
This particular historical evil began after the Civil War, when white-supremacist legislatures were resisting efforts to treat blacks as fellow humans with equal rights and dignity.
Though attempts to block the 14th Amendment failed, and though the Reconstruction Act of 1867 forced Florida to add an article to its state constitution granting suffrage to all men, creative racists kept many blacks from the ballot box with educational requirements and a lifetime voting ban for convicted felons, knowing blacks had been and would be abused by the criminal-justice system.
Florida’s constitution changed a century later, during the civil-rights era; but the blanket ban on voting by convicted felons remained, excepting those rare few given clemency.
The provision remains in the state’s constitution today, punishing people of all races who have served their debt to society, been released from prison, and asked to fully assume all the duties of citizenship, from paying taxes to participation in a draft. “Florida denies the right to vote to more of its residents than any state, and to the largest percentage of its voting-age citizens,” according to Erika L. Wood of New York Law School, who authored a research brief on the law’s sordid past and its present.