Florida Must Break with Republican States that Deny African Americans the Right to Vote

Slate photo
Slate photo

Gov. Ron DeSantis appears ready to unshackle their forward-looking state from the un-American laws of Jim Crow and the 19th-century, rooted in racism and that prevented people released from prison — particularly targeting African Americans — from voting.

Friday, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that Florida must allow felons to vote even if they cannot afford to pay court-ordered fees, fines and restitution, in a lawsuit challenging the Legislature’s attempt to hobble Amendment 4.

Hinkle ruled that the amendment, which voters passed resoundingly last year, giving felons back the right to vote, indeed, requires that they pay financial obligations to have their voting rights restored.

The governor agrees with this narrow decision, which covers felons mired in poverty. However, DeSantis on Tuesday went further, saying that he would be “comfortable” changing the clemency rules to expand nonviolent felons’ civil rights to include serving on juries and running for elected office.This is a sea change in attitude, refreshing, overdue and, ultimately, the right thing to do.As always, it’s been a numbers game, and Republican-led states and legislatures have been playing dirty to win. According to the Sentencing Project, a wildly disproportionate 21.4 percent of African Americans in Florida were disenfranchised in 2016. The state’s African-American population stands at about 12 percent.

The advocacy organization wrote: “Driven in part by a relatively high incarceration rate, black Americans in Florida are the most likely to be disenfranchised. Nearly one in four black Florida residents have had their right to vote revoked in some way, the highest proportion in the country. In absolute terms, 520,521 black individuals living in Florida are disenfranchised, also the highest number in the nation.”

But Florida has not been alone in preventing black residents from reaching the ballot box, where Republicans presume they will vote against the party that has its foot on their necks. In 2018, Americans, for instance, saw Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state push through an “exact match” mandate, throwing out voter applications if so much as a hyphen was missing from a name. African Americans are 32 percent of Georgia’s population. But almost 70 percent of the applications thrown out were from black residents. Kemp won the governorship in his close race against Stacey Abrams, his African-American opponent.

A federal court ruled that North Carolina’s voter-ID law targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision.” The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the state’s appeal. States have brazenly shut down polling places in rural, mostly black areas, forcing voters to drive miles and miles to cast a ballot, a real disincentive.

Still, studies remain inconclusive as to which party actually benefits when felons’ voting rights are restored. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped Republican lawmakers from doing their best to tilt the scales in their favor. With DeSantis taking the lead, it’s time for Florida to break from that sorry pack.

Editor’s note: This editorial has been updated to include Gov. DeSantis’ comments on clemency for felons.

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