Will Florida Banish the Ghost of Jim Crow?

The state still disenfranchises more of its eligible voters than any other—but this year, it has the chance to change that.

Joe Skipper / Reuters

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.

The law still overburdens African Americans, who are more likely to be convicted of felonies compared to whites who commit the same crime. “Nearly one-third of those who have lost the right to vote for life in Florida are black, although African Americans make up just 16 percent of the state’s population,” she notes. “Florida’s law disenfranchises 21 percent of its total African American voting-age population.”

And many who are never even accused of a crime are affected.

Disenfranchisement echoes across communities and generations: Some eligible voters are less likely to vote when their friends and neighbors are staying home; children who never see their parents vote grow up are less likely to cast ballots themselves.

Put simply, the status quo is a moral abomination.

White supremacists sought to deny a whole race the right to vote; when they failed, a lifetime ban on felons voting struck them as the next best thing; their racist scheme not only succeeded, it is operative in Florida, the worst of U.S. states with similar laws, 150 years later. And the scale is enough to change the course of history, even setting aside those echoes of disenfranchisement to focus on first-order effects. In 2016, when the gambit of the long-dead racists disqualified 1.6 million Floridians from voting, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the state by just 112,911 votes.

Righting this wrong wouldn’t just advance moral justice in Florida.

The state presently considers clemency applications from felons hoping to have their voting rights restored on a case-by-case basis, imposing high costs on its bureaucracy. And some experts believe voting helps convicted felons to reintegrate themselves into civic life; rates of recidivism seem to be lower among those who vote, though the non-random nature of who is granted clemency may explain that effect.

How to right the wrong that will persist for another 150 years if nothing is done?

If enough signatures are gathered, an amendment to restore voting rights for felons, exempting murderers and sex offenders, can appear on Florida’s ballot in 2018.

The Florida Supreme Court has already approved the language.

But the last time Floridians for a Fair Democracy, the group behind the effort, tried to get this reform on the ballot, it failed to gather enough signatures. This time around, it has until February 1, 2018, to get 766,200 signatures verified as legitimate, meaning it probably needs all the signatures gathered by the end of this year.

It’s currently at just 172,184 signatures.

Florida Governor Rick Scott won’t help. He benefits from the voting framework the long-dead racists initiated. Like many Republicans, he denies any racial motive for pursuing and defending laws that disproportionately suppress turnout among the racial groups most likely to vote Democratic. You’d think Democrats would work furiously to re-enfranchise those voters, given how narrowly the party lost Florida and the presidency in 2000 and 2016, and Florida’s likely swing-state status in future contests.

Some Democrats are working toward that end, along with civil libertarians at organizations like the ACLU who are doing as much as anyone to aid the petition-gatherers.

Yet with mere months left to qualify the constitutional amendment for the Florida  ballot, most of the Democratic base, including most self-proclaimed members of “the resistance,” have no idea that a realistic opportunity to enfranchise 1.6 million swing-state voters is upon them. They are focused elsewhere, on many worthy projects, but also on much quixotic nonsense. For example, whether the Florida reform effort succeeds or fails, it will probably be the case that more grassroots energy was lavished on an ostensible effort to keep “fascists” from taking over Berkeley, California, where an open fascist couldn’t get approval to adopt a rescue dog. What if disenfranchisement inspired as much activism as Milo Yiannopolous?

Being on the wrong side of voting rights may be the biggest moral failing of Republicans and conservatives. Democrats will not find a better alignment of what is moral, righteous, and politically good for their coalition than securing voting rights for more Americans, whether they are poor people without an ID or felons who have paid their debt to society or those Americans wrongly purged from voter rolls or forced to stand in hours-long lines to vote or denied the ability to cast an absentee ballot.

But America’s left-coalition may not be able to capitalize on this moral failure; many of its moderates treat one-day marches and social-media zings as meaningful civic victories (though in this particular case, a social-media campaign to convince registered Florida voters to download, print, sign, and mail the petition could conceivably bear fruit); many of its tireless activists are more energized by protesting against the system from the outside than working to gather signatures, qualify ballot initiatives, persuade skeptics, excite turnout, and effect change through the ballot box. Will enough opponents of disenfranchisement grasp the stakes in Florida before it’s too late?