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Felon Voting Laws, Racism, Rick Scott, and Pam Bondi, Part II

The Florida Clemency Board's decision last week to reinstate an archaic felon voting ban has set off a storm of protest. The new rule, which requires nonviolent felons to wait five years after completing their sentences to apply for voting rights, can easily be seen as a tool to disenfranchise African-Americans, who make up half the state's prison population.

Yet Attorney General Pam Bondi, writing this week in a St. Petersburg Times editorial, insists the rule is colorblind. "Justice has nothing to do with race," she writes. "In a recent case, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals examined the historical record and soundly rejected the argument that Florida's prohibition on felon voting was originally motivated by racial discrimination."

Let's break that argument down, shall we?

It's true, the appeals court quarreled with the contention, put forth by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, that the provision disenfranchising felons in the 1868 Florida Constitution was intended to take away the voting rights of newly freed slaves.

But regardless of intention, it's tough to argue with how the law was used. According to Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of public administration at Florida State University, it was zealously employed -- just like poll taxes -- to keep African-Americans from voting.

 "It was used to target and weaken voting rights for blacks," says the professor, who was an expert in the Brennan Center case. "And that is what they're doing with it today."

After Reconstruction reform ended in Florida, Northern troops were sent home, and the old, white Confederate establishment once more rose to power. Lawmakers started instituting poll taxes, and "they also started arresting African-Americans for felonies and getting them off the voter rolls," says deHaven-Smith.

Poring over arrest records in a Tallahassee library, deHaven-Smith discovered that African-Americans were booked, in large numbers, for offenses like bigamy. Yes, bigamy, the crime of having multiple wives. Which is fascinating, since slaves were forbidden from marrying and were forcibly separated from their families. How on Earth would a police officer know (or prove) that a newly freed slave was illegally involved with multiple women?

"It was astounding to me," deHaven-Smith says."How do you catch somebody doing that?"

Yet African-American men were arrested and sent to prison camps, where they were forced into hard labor, draining the Everglades or working for turpentine companies.

At the time, African-Americans could be arrested for just about anything a white officer wanted to charge them with, adds Jerrell Shofner, a retired historian who testified in the Brennan Center's case. "They had not adjusted to the idea of blacks being citizens," Shofner says. "It had a long-range effect."
 
With such uneven justice, the ban on felon voting became a tool to keep African-Americans from voting, deHaven-Smith says. "They didn't have to twist the law that much. They twisted the application of it."

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab

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