Florida’s re­peal ends racist ban on vot­ing

The Columbus Dispatch - - Front Page - By Tim El­frink

TAL­LA­HAS­SEE, Fla. — In 1868, Florida’s white elites faced a threat ev­ery bit as grave as the Civil War that had ended in Con­fed­er­ate de­feat three years ear­lier. Congress had just forced Florida to re­write its con­sti­tu­tion to al­low ev­ery man the right to vote. But adding thou­sands of newly el­i­gi­ble black res­i­dents to the rolls would abruptly make whites a vot­ing mi­nor­ity.

The old guard’s only hope was to some­how ban black vot­ers with­out vi­o­lat­ing Re­con­struc­tion acts passed by Congress af­ter the Civil War. Hud­dled in Tal­la­has­see back­rooms through­out that cool Jan­uary, they found just the ticket: a life­time vot­ing ban on any­one with a felony con­vic­tion. Com­bined with post­war laws that made it un­be­liev­ably easy to sad­dle black res­i­dents with crim­i­nal records, leg­is­la­tors knew they could sup­press black votes in­def­i­nitely.

Or at least for a cen­tury and a half. On Tues­day, Florida res­i­dents voted to end that 150-year-old ban by back­ing Amend­ment 4, which will re­turn vot­ing rights to more than 1 mil­lion Florid­i­ans who have served out their sen­tences. The amend­ment gar­nered 64 per­cent of the vote.

His­to­ri­ans say the vote also ends a law with roots so bla­tantly racist that one state leader later boasted that the post­war con­sti­tu­tion would pre­vent Florida from be­ing taken over by blacks, us­ing a racial slur to de­scribe them.

“Their in­tent was quite clear: to elim­i­nate as many black vot­ers as pos­si­ble,” Darryl Paul­son, an emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of gov­ern­ment at the Univer­sity of South Florida St. Peters­burg, said.

The ban was re­mark­ably ef­fec­tive at do­ing so, even 150 years later. As of 2016, more than one in five black Florid­i­ans couldn’t vote thanks to the rule, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis by the Sen­tenc­ing Project.

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