Fifty-four years ago this month, protestors trekked from Selma to Montgomery to protest voting discrimination throughout the South. That historic march culminated in the adoption of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The landmark law, the most significant voting rights law ever passed, led to the abolishment of literacy tests and the elimination of the poll tax as a requirement to vote.
Florida had been the first state to adopt the poll tax in 1889. With a population that was almost half black in 1900, the state also adopted the white primary, the grandfather clause and long residency requirements to eliminate black voters, thereby joining other southern states in adopting these disfranchisement measures. Today, as we celebrate the Selma march and the passage of the voting rights act, we are confronted with attempts by southern state legislatures, including Florida’s, to reverse the objectives of the civil rights movement and the historic 1965 law. This is not a new story.
After the voting rights law passed, southern whites showed their reluctance to relinquish power. Although literacy tests and poll taxes became relics of the past, vote dilution emerged as a new strategy to obstruct black political power. These schemes make no direct reference to race, but are based on the residential concentration of black voters in certain parts of a city, county or state. Vote dilution uses runoff primaries, at-large elections, multi-member districts and gerrymandering to restrict black political power.
By 1998, Florida became the first southern state to have complete Republican control of the legislative and executive branch. Republicans took control of the Florida Senate in 1994, the House in 1996, and the executive branch in 1998 with the election of Jeb Bush. With blacks firmly committed to the Democratic Party, some Republicans sought ways to diminish their vote.
The 2000 presidential election provided the GOP with such an opportunity. The Republican-controlled Legislature “purged” illegal felons from the voter rolls. In the process, thousands of other voters were wrongly removed as well. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission investigation into the 2000 presidential election in Florida concluded that black voters were disproportionately purged. For example, in Miami-Dade County, 65 percent of those purged were blacks, even though blacks accounted for only 20 percent of the population.
Southern governments had historically used the rhetoric of “reform” and “electoral integrity” to justify their policies that removed black voters from the rolls, including poll taxes and literacy tests that supposedly combatted graft and corruption. But it was apparent to many that the real objective was to diminish the black vote.
Even though Florida was widely criticized for its voter purges during the 2000 presidential election, the Republican-controlled Legislature did the same thing in 2011 when it passed a bill curtailing early voting from 12 to 8 days, limiting early voting hours in many counties and eliminating “Souls to the Polls” Sundays. All of these features had boosted black turnout. In 2008, 54 percent of blacks used early voting, almost twice the percentage of whites. Former Florida GOP chair Jim Greer told the Palm Beach Post that the Republican Party “firmly believes that early voting is bad for Republican Party candidates.”
As a result of the 2011 “reforms,” thousands of Floridians were still standing in long lines after the polls closed at 7 p.m. It was not until 2:54 a.m., or nearly eight hours after the polls closed, that the last vote was cast in Lee County.
Now, the Republican Party is set to subvert the enfranchisement of felons, even though 64 percent of Floridians approved Amendment 4, which extended voting rights to non-violent felons who had served their time, paid their fines and made financial restitution to their victims. Florida incarcerates a higher percentage of blacks than any other state. Whites have a 4 percent chance of imprisonment in Florida; for blacks, 28 percent can expect to end up in prison. More than 20 percent of blacks in Florida have been eliminated from voting due to a felony conviction. According to the Sentencing Project, “more people were disenfranchised in Florida than any other state.” Does that make anyone proud?
Republican legislators are now arguing that ex-felons have not completed their sentence until they have also paid court costs incurred from their original trials. Neither the framers of the amendment nor voters had this in mind when they adopted Amendment 4. Court costs can be considerable, especially for felons who have difficulty finding gainful employment. Republicans who support this measure are seeking to adopt a 21st century version of the long-rejected poll tax.
The legacy of black suffrage in Florida and the South warns us that whenever African Americans make significant strides in political participation, white opponents devise ways to diminish these gains. Black Americans have been down this road before and have demonstrated that sheer persistence and creative strategies can yield triumphs.
Steven Lawson is professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University. Darryl Paulson is professor emeritus of government at USFSP. Lawson and Paulson, along with David Colburn, were co-authors of “Groveland: Florida’s Little Scottsboro.” Lawson is the author of “Running for Freedom: Civil Rights and Black Politics Since 1941.” Paulson has written extensively on race relations and civil rights in Florida, and has testified numerous times in state and federal court cases involving voting rights and reapportionment.