Current Tallahassee mayor and Florida’s gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum has been facing a lot of pressure from his political rivals. However, one of his biggest challenges comes in the form of an antiquated Jim Crow era law that can effectively break his dreams of becoming the first black governor of Florida.
Gillum needs the support of black voters to win the campaign. However, a Florida constitution with roots in Jim Crow era bars 1.7 million Floridians, including 21.5 percent of black Americans, convicted of felony from voting permanently.
The Sunshine State strips felons of their right to vote at a higher rate than any other U.S. state. Florida also has a disproportionate amount of African-American felons and the racial disparity is not a coincidence.
The state requires former felons to wait an additional five to seven crime-free years after completing their sentences, probation and parole before they are eligible to even apply to have their voting rights restored. The application process is itself very challenging, requiring certified copies of the charging documents, judgment and sentencing for each conviction, something that is very difficult to obtain if a person has been convicted of a crime decades ago. They are also required to appeal directly to the governor and other state officials and travel to Tallahassee for a hearing before the clemency board. The board comes together only four times a year to meet hundreds of ex-felons and the backlog is so huge, people get dates years ahead of the meeting. If they are rejected on their first attempt, they have to wait two more years to try again.
In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott rewrote the rule surrounding clemency making Florida the toughest country for felons who want to have their voting rights reinstated.
Thomas Kennedy, the political director at Florida Immigrant Coalition, said it has become very frustrating to go into communities of color and meet with people who support the candidate but are unable to vote.
“We meet people all the time, like when we’re talking to voters, for whatever the campaign, they say, ‘Oh, I actually can’t vote. I’m a felon,’” he said.
The policy of disenfranchising felons goes back to the racist Jim Crow era, specifically to Florida’s first Constitution in 1938 and was later reinforced after the Civil War to keep African Americans from the voting process. In 1865, the state gave only “free white males” the right to vote. During that time, some regions in Florida had more black slaves than white people, making black representation much stronger. To counteract this, lawmakers implemented “Black Codes” that were meant to increase the severity of the punishment for crimes freed slaves were accused of committing, including stealing cotton, loitering and vagrancy. Blacks were sent to prison and then leased out to companies for slave labor, keeping them in an endless cycle of slavery and away from the polls.
Fast forward a century and a half later, the law still exists and the disproportionate arrests of African American is arguably at its worst.
However, in November, Florida voters will be required to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment, Amendment 4, which will automatically restore voting rights to people who had completed their felony sentences, included those who were convicted of murder or sexual offenses.
The new bill could motivate some of Gillum’s unlikely voters to go to polls because they may know of an ex-felon who may benefit from the amendment.
“We definitely know that family members, friends, colleagues — people who are familiar with the pain somebody else might be going through — are willing to show up and be their voices,” said Neil Volz, the political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which is backing the amendment. “Bloodlines are a really powerful connector, and people who know somebody who’s directly impacted have a real personal reason to get out and vote.”
Over 70 percent of Florida voters are in favor of the amendment being passed, beyond those who are liberals or Democrats.
“There are Republicans and [unaffiliated voters] who are strongly in favor of Amendment 4, and that’s where I think the real interesting dynamic is,” said Daniel Smith from the University of Florida.
“When I think about where we are, I think about going all over the state and talking about the concept when a debt is paid, it’s paid,” Volz said. “Anywhere you go, anybody you talk to, deep, deep, deep, deep down, most people can connect with that simple concept.”
Banner/Thumbnail Credits: REUTERS/Chris Aluka Berry