As a swingy state capable of spinning either direction in an election year, Floridians are frequently in a position to decide the U.S. presidency. They’ll also be in a place to decide the shape of the U.S. Senate, with the upcoming vote between Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida) and two-term Governor Rick Scott for a U.S. Senate seat.
Rick Scott, however, is taking advantage of an old Jim Crow law to press the political scale on his end this November. More than 1.5 million Floridians can’t vote in their own state due to an ancient segregationist law designed to keep black people from voting.
The law refuses certain felons the right to vote, long after they’ve served their time, whether or not they have been completely reformed. Mirror laws in other states are designed specifically to squelch the black vote by selectively targeting certain “money crimes” — typically theft. Judges have already declared the law’s racist purpose, even in Mississippi.
People in Florida convicted of the kind of crimes that kill their voting rights must appeal to the Republican-led Florida Clemency Board to get those rights reinstated. Rick Scott occupies a seat on that board. It is a position he shares with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who denied that a generous $25,000 donation from the Trump Foundation had anything to do with her refusal to pursue a case against the fraudulent Trump University, after dozens of complaints from Floridians.
According to an expose by the Palm Beach Post, the Republican governor prefers to grant voting rights to three times as many white male applicants as black male applicants—who tend to vote Democratic. After exhausting research, the paper was able to determine that Scott restored rights to a higher percentage of Republicans and a lower percentage of Democrats than any of his predecessors since 1971. Blacks also accounted for a lower percentage of restorations under Scott than any former governors going back for half a century, even though minorities are over-represented in Florida prisons.
Scott approached the board with a purpose in 2011. Right after his election, he changed the rules (Page 11) forcing some applicants to wait seven years before even qualifying to appear before the board, and others to wait five. Helping him is the fact that there are no solid laws on who gets their voting rights back and who doesn’t.
The Palm Beach Post noted one black man who believed he got rejected after accidentally telling Scott that he had interacted with a Florida Democratic politician. Meanwhile, Republican donor James Batmasian, who served time for tax evasion, got his vote back without even a hearing.
It’s all the more reason to remove a partisan like Scott from the process by dumping the restrictions entirely, said Morgan McCloud, communications manager with democratic watchdog organization The Sentencing Project.
“This speaks to the arbitrariness of the entire process,” McCloud told Grit Post. “It’s deeply problematic to democracy, and it’s counterproductive for effective reentry into society to deny the right to vote to an entire class of citizens.”
“People are more likely to succeed if we can give them a job, and establish strong ties to their community after they’ve served their time. It’s no good to label them second-class citizens and deny them the right to vote,” she added.
A ballot initiative is currently underway in Florida that could dispense with Scott’s anti-democratic hammer, if a majority of voters approve it. Amendment 4, if passed, would automatically restore the right to vote for most people with prior felony convictions, upon completion of their sentences, including prison, parole, and probation.
The change would not apply to those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, but could still give voting rights to more than 1 million disenfranchised voters. This really means something in a state that gave the nation George W. Bush in 2001, with only a few thousand votes—if at all. One million votes could easily change the dynamic, with polls so close in the race for Florida governor and the senate seat Rick Scott is seeking.