Why the repeal of a racist 19th-century Florida law is important

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Why the repeal of a racist 19th-century Florida law is important

Amid the highlights of the US midterm election results was the triumph for voting rights in the state of Florida. The nation’s third largest state, which often plays an important role in presidential elections, voted overwhelmingly to approve a constitutional amendment restoring the right to vote for those with a felony conviction.

This is a major step forward in a nation where millions of people are denied a basic right of citizenship, based on laws rooted in a legacy of racism.

Passing with 64 percent of the vote, in excess of the 60 percent supermajority threshold required for passage, Amendment 4 restores voting rights to Floridians who were convicted of felonies, provided they have completed their sentences. The measure excludes people who were convicted of murder or felony sex offences.

The impact of the new law is sweeping, affecting more than one million people in Florida who have been stripped of their voting rights due to a criminal record. For people of colour, the implications of Amendment 4 are even more pronounced, as the measure grants the vote to 20 percent of African American adults in Florida who have been barred from the franchise due to a felony record – and a staggering 40 percent of African American men.

In a state in which eight million voters participated in the 2018 election, the addition of over one million voters has the potential to transform its politics and policies. Florida is the most important US swing state and its vote is crucial in presidential and congressional elections. It has selected the winner of every presidential contest this century and provided the margin of victory to George W Bush in 2000.

In recent years, the state has been under control of the Republicans who have been pushing for regressive pro-gun and anti-environment policies. The more than one million eligible voters who just got added to Florida’s electorate could change all that. Given that Amendment 4 affected predominantly African American men, who tend to vote for the Democratic Party, it is quite possible that in 2020 Florida would see a different outcome at the polls. Analysts have projected Democrats gaining as many as 102,000 more votes as a result of this enfranchisement effort.

But beyond its possible impact on future polls in Florida, the repeal of Amendment 4 carries a broader and more historic significance for the US as a whole; it is a major victory against voter suppression.

Many would be surprised to know that in the so-called “land of the free”, the right to vote is not automatic for many. In a nation that originally limited voting to white male landowners and regarded enslaved people as three-fifths of a person with no citizenship rights, the right to vote has been granted to marginalised groups only through protest and, in some cases such as the US civil rights movement, bloodshed and martyrdom.

During the Reconstruction era following the American civil war, liberated black people had the right the vote and took advantage of it, electing 2,000 black officials, a governor of a US state, senators and members of Congress – many of them former slaves.

The pathway to political empowerment for black people ended when white men retook control of the Southern states, presided over a rollback of civil rights and denied voting rights to African-Americans by law and through intimidation, and the threat of physical violence and death.

Felony disenfranchisement laws have their origins in the era of American apartheid, the days of racial segregation, as a means of suppressing black aspirations and rendering them invisible.

Florida’s felon disenfranchisement law dates back to 150 years ago when white elites were faced with the prospect of thousands of new black voters rendering white men a minority of the state’s voting electorate.

A lifetime voting ban on people with a felony record muted black political power, with a racialised regime targeting black men and singling them out for punishment with trumped-up charges and crimes designed solely for them. The laws eliminated thousands of black people from civic participation for life and made them unavailable as political competitors.

Across the country, as of 2016, 6.1 million people were unable to vote because of a felony conviction, with Florida accounting for roughly one quarter, according to the Sentencing Project. This includes 1 in every 40 adults, 1 in every 13 African-Americans and 1 in every 56 non-black voters. With the recent changes in Florida, of the 34 states that impose voting restrictions on past criminal convictions, Kentucky and Iowa are the only remaining states imposing lifetime disenfranchisement.  

Although the changes to the Florida law are a positive and decisive step in furthering democracy, the US is still experiencing a voting rights crisis. For all of the ample evidence of foreign intervention in US elections, American officials are effectively denying the rights of their fellow citizens, working in earnest to rig elections and block people of colour, students, the elderly and others at the ballot box through restrictive voter ID laws.

The right-wing US Supreme Court has gutted the enforcement mechanism of the Voting Rights Act, allowing states and localities to deny racial minority groups’ access to democracy with reckless abandon. Between 2014 and 2016 alone, states purged nearly 16 million voters from their voter rolls. The nation’s high court also allowed the unlimited role of money in politics – legalised corruption – with its decision in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission.

Gerrymandering of electoral districts has amplified the voice of the majority, entrenched the powerful and sidelined the interests of marginalised groups.    

Despite these many challenges, the restoration of voting rights to the formerly incarcerated in the Sunshine State is cause for celebration, as those who have served their time and paid their debt to society should have the opportunity to participate as productive members of society.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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