Remember the 2000 election debacle, when Florida became the laughingstock of the nation? It wasn't just punch-card ballots that caused our fair state such embarrassment. It was the wrongful purging of thousands of voters from the rolls because they were misidentified as felons.
That mishap brought to light the painful fact that Florida had the largest number of disenfranchised felons in the nation -- a disproportionate swath of whom were African-American. This was no accident. And Rick Scott knows it.
Yesterday, Scott and his Cabinet passed an archaic rule requiring nonviolent felons to wait five years after completing their sentences before applying to have their voting rights restored. This
means citizens won't be able to participate in the most basic tenet of
our democracy, despite having paid their debt to society. Why such a
bizarre punishment? Why, if they are free to move into our
neighborhoods, get jobs, and pay taxes, can't they vote?
Quick history lesson, courtesy of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University: Florida's felon disenfranchisement laws were first passed in the years immediately after the Civil War. Legislators, having just freed the slaves, didn't want black men -- nearly half the state's population -- to have too much political power. So lawmakers passed Black Codes, outlawing minor offenses they thought ex-slaves would be likely to commit. Prison camps filled up with black men convicted of petty crimes. Then legislators took away the voting rights of felons.
This was a common disenfranchisement tactic used throughout the South, and it worked. In 2004, about 19 percent of Florida's African-American population could not vote because of the felony restriction.
To their credit, Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist heard the outcry after the 2000 election and worked to reform the outdated laws. By 2007, there was no longer a waiting period for felons to apply for voting rights, and nonviolent offenders didn't even have to apply -- their voting rights were automatically restored when they completed their sentences.
But yesterday, Scott turned back the clock. Only two other states -- Virginia and Kentucky -- have such Jim Crow-style voting restoration rules, according to the Palm Beach Post.
Some might say Scott just wanted to disenfranchise Democratic voters. Or that he's tough on crime. But half of the state's prison population is black. And Scott just made sure many of those citizens will never be able to vote against him.
UPDATE: Read more about the history of felon voting laws and how ex-felons could have kept Scott out of office.
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