Florida’s repeal ends racist ban on voting
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.