How Florida kept blacks from voting

Published Oct. 17, 2013

Editor's note: In the second of a 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.

There is universal agreement among the scholars of Southern politics that the literacy test was the primary obstacle confronting blacks who desired to vote. Supposedly, all voters, black and white, had to pass a literacy test before earning the right to vote.

Although equally applied to blacks and whites in theory, in practice the literacy test was one of the most discriminatory barriers in the South.

Blacks had been denied an education for generations and, even when the South provided education, it was "separate and unequal." Black schools had inferior facilities, curriculum and faculty, and were allocated less money per pupil than white schools.

The major burden blacks confronted when taking the test was the discretion of election officials to determine if you gave the correct answer. White voters seldom failed; black voters seldom passed.

In 1915, the Legislature enacted a literacy test along with a companion grandfather clause. The clause, common throughout the South, declared that any person who had a relative who voted prior to a certain date did not have to take the test.

According to the proposed Florida law, if you had a relative who was eligible to vote on Jan. 1, 1867, you were exempt from taking the test. Since no black Floridian was voting prior to that date, all of them had to pass the test.

Blacks were frequently asked more technical and legal questions than whites. When one black applicant was asked what "habeas corpus" meant, he responded: "Habeas corpus means this black man ain't gonna register today."

Even after courts and federal laws eliminated the white primary, poll tax and grandfather clause, the literacy test could always be counted on to limit black political participation. By the mid 1960s, fewer than one out of four blacks were voting because they failed the test. In Mississippi, only 7 percent of blacks were registered to vote by 1964.

Several attempts to get the U.S. Supreme Court to outlaw the literacy test failed. Finally, the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act limited the use of the tests in Southern states. Further extensions of the Voting Rights Act in later years would ultimately prohibit the use of such tests anywhere in America.

For almost a century, Florida had been extraordinarily successful in disenfranchising black voters. As Southern historian J. Morgan Kouser observed, "The registration, poll tax, eight-box, and secret ballot simply exterminated the opposition" in Florida elections.

Turnout among black males in 1888, before the barriers went into effect, was 62 percent. Just four years later, after the barriers were enacted, black male turnout in Florida dropped to 11 percent. In four short years, as Kouser noted, the Florida black voter became virtually extinct.

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Vote dilution

The civil rights movement and the passage of federal laws such as the Voting Rights Act ended the major hurdles to black voting in Florida and the South. Black voter registration soared, and with the passage of time hundreds of blacks in Florida would be elected to political office.

The election of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama would not have been possible without the movement and the legislation. Carter said that without the civil rights movement and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, no Southerner could have won a national election.

In other words, until the issue of race had been resolved, most Americans could not bring themselves to vote for a Southerner while the region was oppressing its black citizens.

A look at the 2012 presidential election finds that blacks voted at higher rates than whites. Many argue that voter suppression efforts by the Republican Party actually stimulated their high participation rates. Even worse for Republicans, 95 percent of that vote went to Obama.

While the major barriers to black voting have been removed, many observers argue that voter disenfranchisement has been replaced with vote dilution. As Southern voting rights expert Chandler Davidson notes, "Minorities can now vote — they just cannot cast an effective vote."

Most vote dilution schemes make no direct reference to race, but all are based on the residential concentration of black voters in certain parts of a city or county. The main forms of vote dilution are runoff primaries, at-large elections and multi-member districts.

Florida was the first state to adopt the runoff primary in 1901. At that time, blacks made up 44 percent of the population and there was a real fear that a black candidate might win an election in a multi-candidate field.

To diminish that possibility, a second or runoff primary was instituted. If no candidate received a majority of the vote in the first primary, the top two vote-getters would compete in a runoff. This would usually allow white voters to coalesce around the white candidate to prevent the election of any black.

At-large elections also dilute the black vote. For example, if blacks made up 25 percent of a city's population and there were eight council districts, blacks would likely win two of those districts if single-member districts were used. By switching to at-large elections, whites outnumber blacks three to one and will likely win all of the seats.

Multi-member districts operate under the same principle as at-large elections. In single-member districts, blacks would be expected to win many districts. In multi-member districts, anywhere from two to six candidates run for seats in the county or in legislative districts. Since white voters outnumber blacks, white candidates generally win all the seats.

Until 1981, the Florida Senate had five one-member districts, seven two-member districts and seven three-member districts. The Florida House had districts ranging from two to six members and 99 of the 120 members of the House were elected from multi-member districts.

While in use, no more than five blacks served in the House at any one time. Although no longer used, the Florida Constitution still permits multi-member districts and they could be reinstituted at any time.

The 2000 presidential election to the present

The 2000 presidential election in Florida exposed numerous problems with the election process, and many of those problems were disproportionately likely to affect black voters.

As the nation waited for the Florida election results to see who would be the next president of the United States, complaints emerged about antiquated voting machines, poorly designed ballots and the purging of black voters.

More than 190,000 over-votes were cast, meaning that these voters voted for two candidates for the same office. Under Florida law, over-votes are illegal and not to be counted.

In Duval County, voters were instructed to vote for a candidate on each page, but the list of presidential candidates covered several pages. By following the instructions, thousands of votes were disqualified.

In Palm Beach County, voters confronted the infamous "butterfly ballot." Candidates were listed on both pages of the ballot with punch holes in the middle. Many voters punched the wrong hole. Some voters who cast an incorrect vote tried to correct it by punching another hole for their preferred candidate. This double punch disqualified the vote.

A Washington Post study of Duval County found that as many as one out of three black votes were rejected in Jacksonville. A similar study by the New York Times concluded that black precincts had three times as many rejected ballots as white precincts. Problems such as these would lead observers to refer to Florida as "the home of electile dysfunction."

Another problem disclosed in the 2000 election was the purge of voters, disproportionately black, based on faulty data. The Legislature contracted with Data Based Technologies to purge ineligible voters.

Since felons cannot vote in Florida unless they have their political rights restored by the governor and Cabinet, the state sought to remove any felons who should not be on the voter rolls. The data used was worthless and generated "false positives."

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigation into the 2000 presidential election in Florida concluded that blacks were disproportionately purged from the voter rolls. In Miami-Dade, blacks were 65 percent of those purged even though they made up only 20.4 percent of the population.

Florida conducted another purge before the 2012 election. The state prepared a list of 180,000 potential illegal voters. Of those, 75 percent were blacks or Hispanics. The state "found" 2,600 suspicious potential voters whose names were sent to county election supervisors. Many supervisors found the list "sloppy" or "embarrassing." Many refused to participate.

In September 2012, the Division of Elections found only 207 noncitizens on the original list of 180,000. Only 85 individuals were removed, or 0.0002 percent of Florida's registered voters, according to PolitiFact, the Tampa Bay Times' fact-checking website.

In 2011 the Legislature drafted election laws limiting early voting days and hours. Civil rights attorneys pointed out that blacks used early voting more than whites in four of the past five presidential elections. In the 2008 election in Florida, 54 percent of blacks voted early, or nearly twice the rate as whites.

The 2012 election reinforced Florida's image as being incapable of conducting fair and efficient elections. When the polls closed at 7 p.m., tens of thousands of Floridians were still in line waiting to vote. It was not until 2:54 a.m. that the last voter would cast his ballot in Lee County.

A study by Ohio State University professor Theodore Allen discovered that 201,000 Floridians did not vote due to the long lines. Allen estimated that this cost Obama 108,000 votes and Romney 93,000.

One final issue that disproportionately limits black voting in Florida is the felon vote. Florida is among the four most restrictive states when it comes to felons voting.

The Sentencing Project, using state data, found that more than 10 percent of all Floridians are disqualified from voting because of a felony conviction. For Florida's black population, more than one in five are disqualified from voting.

"More people were disenfranchised in Florida than in any other state," according to the Sentencing Project.

The major barriers to black voting are gone, but too many impediments still stand in the way of free and fair elections. Florida must do better.

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 be heard soon in federal district court in Tallahassee.