Tri­umph, and tremors, in Flor­ida

Will Repub­li­can politi­cians thwart vot­ers’ will by block­ing ex-con­victs from cast­ing bal­lots?

The Washington Post - - CAPITAL BUSINESS -

IN NOVEM­BER, nearly two-thirds of Flor­ida vot­ers backed a state con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment that would re­store vot­ing rights to roughly 1.4 mil­lion for­mer felons — a mea­sure that un­did a fea­ture of state law, en­acted after the Civil War by racist white law­mak­ers, de­signed to dis­en­fran­chise African Amer­i­cans. Now some Flor­ida Repub­li­cans who op­posed the bal­lot mea­sure, writ­ten un­am­bigu­ously to be self-ex­e­cut­ing, in­sist “clar­i­fy­ing” leg­is­la­tion is needed. That sounds like mis­chief in­tended to thwart the vot­ers’ will and main­tain a sys­tem un­der which at least 1 in 5 black Florid­i­ans faced a life­time ban on vot­ing.

Bar­ring ex-con­victs from the polls, even after they have served their sen­tences in full, was once a dis­tinctly Amer­i­can phe­nom­e­non, meant to im­pede blacks from wield­ing elec­toral power; no other Western democ­racy has erected sim­i­lar bar­ri­ers. In few places was it as vir­u­lent or im­pact­ful as in Flor­ida, where dra­co­nian laws for mi­nor crimes, se­lec­tively en­forced, en­snared African Amer­i­cans and en­sured they would never be able to cast a bal­lot. In 1940, just 3 per­cent of adult black Florid­i­ans were reg­is­tered to vote. To­day, a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of dis­en­fran­chised for­mer felons are African Amer­i­cans.

For­mer Repub­li­can Gov. Char­lie Crist, who later switched par­ties, mod­i­fied the vot­ing ban so that many of­fend­ers’ pe­ti­tions for rights restora­tion would be sub­mit­ted au­to­mat­i­cally. His GOP suc­ces­sor, Rick Scott, now a se­na­tor, scrapped those re­forms. In their place, he es­tab­lished an ar­bi­trary, slow and cum­ber­some sys­tem un­der which the fran­chise was re­stored an­nu­ally to just a few hun­dred whites and very few blacks — and only those who ap­peared in per­son to beg be­fore a panel led by Mr. Scott. More than 10,000 ap­pli­cants lan­guished on a wait­ing list; a quar­ter of the na­tion’s ap­prox­i­mately 6 mil­lion dis­en­fran­chised ex-con­victs are in Flor­ida.

A fed­eral judge con­demned the sys­tem as a sham. Against that back­drop of in­jus­tice, ad­vo­cates man­aged to put Amend­ment 4 on last fall’s bal­lot, mak­ing ex-of­fend­ers (ex­cept mur­der­ers and sex of­fend­ers) au­to­mat­i­cally el­i­gi­ble to vote upon com­ple­tion of their sen­tences, in­clud­ing pa­role and pro­ba­tion. They ar­gued that a debt paid is a debt paid. On Elec­tion Day, about 65 per­cent of Florid­i­ans agreed. State elec­tions of­fi­cials be­gan reg­is­ter­ing for­mer felons last Tues­day.

The hem­ming and haw­ing from some of the mea­sure’s GOP op­po­nents com­menced there­after. They sug­gested the bal­lot lan­guage was un­clear; it wasn’t. “There’s go­ing to be a need of guid­ance for that,” said newly elected Repub­li­can Gov. Ron DeSan­tis. ( We asked his of­fice to clar­ify but re­ceived no re­sponse.)

As a re­sult of the Flor­ida vote, only Ken­tucky, Iowa and Vir­ginia re­tain rules that au­to­mat­i­cally im­pose a life­time ban on vot­ing by ex-con­victs, bar­ring ex­ec­u­tive ac­tion — and in Vir­ginia, now-for­mer gover­nor Terry McAuliffe (D) re­stored vot­ing rights to more than 170,000 peo­ple. But in Tallahassee, politi­cians may try to cling to rem­nants of the past when Flor­ida’s leg­is­la­ture con­venes in March.

Vot­ing rights ad­vo­cates are alert for land mines that may be laid by Mr. DeSan­tis or other Repub­li­cans, who, in a state with a no­to­ri­ous his­tory of elec­toral squeak­ers, may fear the con­se­quences should even a small frac­tion of those 1.4 mil­lion el­i­gi­ble for­mer felons ex­er­cise their fran­chise.

Many for­mer felons, hav­ing never voted, were thrilled to regis­ter. Their en­thu­si­asm for democ­racy ex­ceeds that of some GOP elected of­fi­cials, in Flor­ida and else­where.

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