Florida so often denied black voters

Published November 25 2013

Editor's note: In the last of his three-part series, USF St. Petersburg professor emeritus Darryl Paulson lays out the many ways that Florida has discriminated against black voters from the Civil War forward.

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In the first two parts of this series, I focused on the specific barriers through history that confronted blacks seeking to vote. Now I'll shift my focus to how both the Democrats and Republicans adopted policies to suppress black voting.

The Union victory in the Civil War did not end the oppression of blacks. A new Florida Constitution limited the franchise to "free white males," and, in 1865, the Florida Legislature passed the Black Codes, a series of laws establishing "a separate class of citizenship for blacks, making them inferior to whites."

By 1876, Reconstruction was over, and white political dominance was restored to the Democratic Party. Democrats adopted a new Constitution in 1885 described as a "white supremacy document." This Constitution and the laws passed by the Legislature instituted multiple barriers to black voting, such as the white primary, grandfather clause, poll tax, literacy test, 8 ballot box law, long residency requirements and scores of other obstacles.

In 1889, the Legislature adopted a law allowing the State Board of Public Instruction to appoint three school board members for each county rather than have them elected. The purpose was to prevent the election of blacks and Republicans.

The same year the Legislature abolished elective government in Jacksonville for the same reason. Republicans had controlled Jacksonville since Reconstruction. This change not only ended black and Republican control of the city, but also ended popular control of local government.

The "solid South" came to dominate the politics of Florida and the rest of the South. From the presidential election of 1880 to 1948, the Democrats swept all of the electoral votes of the South with only two exceptions.

In 1928, Florida and several other Southern states supported Republican Herbert Hoover over Democrat Al Smith. Smith's problem was being the first Catholic presidential candidate in an overwhelmingly Protestant South.

In 1948, Democrats from several Southern states walked out of the national convention after the party adopted a civil rights plank. A few weeks later, these delegates held their own convention and nominated Strom Thurmond of South Carolina to lead the States Rights or Dixiecrat Party. That party captured the electoral vote of four Southern states, but Florida remained loyal to Harry Truman and the Democrats.

Beginning in the 1930s, the NAACP began to push civil rights legislation in Congress. It would take three decades before any of it passed, and Florida congressmen helped lead the opposition.

Florida U.S. Sen. Claude Pepper, today regarded as a liberal, was a staunch segregationist during his tenure in the U.S. Senate. In opposing the 1934 Federal Anti-Lynching bill, Pepper argued that "the colored race will not vote, because in doing so ... they endanger the supremacy of a race that God has committed the destiny of a continent."

Democratic dominance of Florida politics lasted almost 120 years until the mid 1990s. During most of that time, Democrats did everything possible to obstruct black voting. Unfortunately, instead of reversing those policies, Republicans instituted their own policies to impede black voting.

The Republican Party and the black voter

Republicans and blacks dominated politics in Florida for about 20 years immediately after the Civil War. The end of Reconstruction also brought an end to Republican dominance for the next 115 years.

Even though the Democrats drew the election district lines in 1992, Republicans took control of the Florida Senate in 1994, the House in 1996 and, two years later, Jeb Bush won the gubernatorial election. Florida became the first Southern state to have Republicans in complete control of the legislative and executive branch.

By the 1990s, few blacks supported the party of Lincoln. One reason was that the Republican Party stopped being the protector of black voters after Reconstruction. The New Deal programs of Franklin Roosevelt also won broad support in the black community as they created jobs and social services.

The final break occurred in 1964 when Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater as its presidential candidate. Goldwater was one of four Republicans in the Senate who voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Although Republicans had won Florida's electoral votes in 1952, 1956 and 1960, and Nixon had won 20 percent of the black vote in 1960, Goldwater captured only about 2 percent of the black vote.

Florida's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Claude Kirk, won election in 1966. Facing a tough re-election campaign against Democrat Reuben Askew, Kirk tried to appeal to white voters who strongly opposed school busing. Kirk twice fired the Manatee County School Board to prevent desegregation.

Kirk refused to appear before Federal District Court Judge Ben Krentzman, arguing that the governor was "sovereign" and, therefore, not compelled to comply with the judicial order. "King Claudius" was fined $10,000 a day for contempt and quickly ended his shenanigans. Kirk also lost his re-election bid.

The election of 2000

The 2000 presidential election heightened tensions between blacks and the Republican Party. Anticipating a close election, the Republican-controlled Legislature contracted with Data Based Technologies to remove "illegal felons" from the voter rolls. The 173,000 names generated by DBT included thousands of "false positives." These were people who had the same or similar names to felons and many were wrongly purged.

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission investigation into the 2000 presidential election in Florida concluded that black voters were disproportionately purged from the voter rolls. In Miami-Dade, 65 percent of those purged were black even though they accounted for only 20 percent of the population.

The Republican Party continued to purge voters. In 2012, the party conducted two purges: one of noncitizens and one involving felons. Of the 180,000 names provided by the State Department of Elections of potential noncitizens, only 85 were removed. Of the 4,000 felons who were purged, 44 percent were black even though blacks are only 16 percent of the population.

In 2011, the Republican Legislature passed an "election reform" bill that curtailed early voting from eight to 12 days and also limited the number of hours of early voting in many counties. In four of the past five presidential elections, early voting was used more by blacks than whites in Florida. In 2008, 54 percent of blacks voted early, almost double the white rate.

The 2011 reforms resulted in long lines during the 2012 election. Thousands of Floridians were still in line when the polls closed at 7 p.m. It was not until 2:54 a.m., or nearly eight hours after the scheduled close, that the last voter cast his ballot in Lee County.

Democrats had instituted one if the most restrictive felon vote laws in the nation. The felon vote law was part of the "black codes" adopted by Florida after the Civil War when black males received the right to vote and the felon vote law was designed to restrict their franchise. Republicans, realizing that most blacks were Democrats, did little to change that policy.

In 2010, Florida had a felon population of 1,541,602 and a voting-age population of 14,799,219. In other words, 10.47 percent of Floridians were disqualified from voting due to a felony conviction. According to the Sentencing Project, "more people were disenfranchised in Florida than any other state."

Political cartoonist Bill Day recently had a cartoon showing a crow, a "Jim Crow," perched on a limb saying "This attack on voting rights is not racial." The nose of the crow, represented by an elephant trunk, was expanding like Pinocchio's nose.

What lies ahead?

Neither Democrats nor Republicans should have any pride in how they have treated the black electorate in the past 200 years. Democrats, who politically controlled Florida for about 140 of the 168 years since statehood, sought to preserve white supremacy for most of their rule.

Republicans, who have controlled the state for about 30 years since Florida became a state in 1845, sought to expand and protect the black electorate after the Civil War. However, in their second period of control running from 1996 to the present, the GOP has sought to suppress black voting.

Blacks have made phenomenal economic and political gains over the past half-century. Black voter turnout has jumped from 53 percent in 1996 to 66.2 percent in 2012, a rate 2 percent higher than white voters. The number of blacks in Southern state legislatures has increased from five in 1965 to 313 today.

Nevertheless, "Black voters and elected officials have less influence now than at any time since the civil rights era," according to David Bositis in Resegregation in Southern Politics?

In 1994, only one out of 202 black legislators in the South served in the minority party; by 2011, 298 out of 313 black legislators served with the minority. As Republicans have taken control of all southern state legislatures, blacks find themselves closed out from any major influence on policy.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby vs. Holder, struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act in a 5-4 decision. The VRA has been the primary law for increasing black voter registration in the South.

The law required all of the covered jurisdictions to submit election law changes to the federal courts or Justice Department for "preclearance."

All of the Deep South states are covered, as well as five counties in Florida (Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hendry and Hardee). These counties were covered because fewer than half of the adults were registered to vote and more than 5 percent of the population was non-English speaking.

Chief Justice John Roberts criticized Congress for failing to adjust the formula for compliance, even though the court had told them to do so in a prior decision. "Things have changed in the South," wrote Roberts. "Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare."

Because Congress failed to update the formula, the court struck down part of the VRA, which means that the jurisdictions no longer are required to get "preclearance" before implementing new election laws.

As soon as the court decision was handed down, Gov. Rick Scott announced another purge of noncitizens. Secretary of State Ken Detzner is now preparing a new list of potential "suspect" voters. Although the new list will be drawn from Homeland Security databases, Florida has never demonstrated evidence of substantial vote fraud. They are pursuing a solution in search of a nonexistent problem.

If Republicans spent as much time trying to appeal to black voters as they have on trying to eliminate them, they would be much better off politically.

Former GOP Chair Jim Greer told the Palm Beach Post the Republican Party "firmly believe that early voting is bad for Republican Party candidates."

The Republican Party justifies its actions as an attempt to eliminate vote fraud. That sounds eerily similar to what Democrats were saying a half-century ago when they were suppressing black voters.

The Republican Party is trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has conducted several investigations of alleged fraud. So far, the only conviction involves Strategic Allied Consulting, a firm contracted by the Republican Party to increase registration of Republican voters.

In many respects, the civil rights activists in Florida and the South bear a striking similarity to the American revolutionaries. Both were willing to risk their lives for a noble cause. And many, such as Harry Moore in Florida, made the ultimate sacrifice.

The heroic actions of the civil rights activists should be honored and respected. To attack voting rights under the guise of eliminating vote fraud is an embarrassment to both the American revolutionaries and the civil rights activists.

Shame on Florida.

Darryl Paulson is professor emeritus of government at USF St. Petersburg specializing in Florida and Southern politics and political parties and elections. He has more than 50 publications, mostly focusing on race and civil rights issues in Florida and the South. He is currently working on a book on "The Emergence of the Modern Florida Republican Party: From Cramer to Scott." He holds the unique distinction of being the only academic in America to have been hired numerous times by the state and national NAACP while serving as a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. This work originally appeared in ContextFlorida and includes extracts from his expert witness report from an upcoming voting rights case to soon be heard in federal district court in Tallahassee.

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