Felon disenfranchisement was designed to “preserve the purity of the ballot box,” or in other words, the whiteness of the electorate.
By the time the Alabama Supreme Court issued that opinion in 1884, Florida had already beaten it to the punch. Florida outlawed voting for anyone convicted of a felony in 1868, at the very same time that it began to convict more black people of felonies.
Exactly 150 years later, Florida voters finally overturned that discriminatory policy, re-enfranchising 1.4 million people in a single stroke on Tuesday. The news that Florida had passed Amendment 4, giving as many as 40 percent of the state’s black men the right to vote, was cause for celebration around the country and certainly here at the SPLC, where we invested heavily to support its passage.
But the picture that emerged out of Florida on Tuesday wasn’t just one of voting rights upheld. It was also of voting rights potentially denied.
Rumors of machine failures, for example, began to circulate when more than 24,000 people were discovered to have voted for a gubernatorial candidate without recording a vote for a senatorial one.
That’s “extremely unusual,” said one official, and perhaps the result of a “machine [that] couldn’t pick it up.”
Meanwhile, in central Florida, voters waited for three hours in lines that extended out of polling places and into parking lots, down sidewalks and around buildings. Some lauded those long lines as evidence of civic engagement. But long lines can also be a sign of too few voting machines – also a form of voter suppression – as was illustrated by the many people whose work forced them to leave the line without casting their ballots.
“It felt like a type of disenfranchisement, even though there wasn’t any violation of voting rights,” Melanie Taylor told Isaac Arnsdorf for ProPublica. “The wait has been … three hours or more, which is ridiculous.”
But Taylor wasn’t voting in Florida. She cast her ballot in Charleston, South Carolina, which saw lines just as long as Florida’s. So did Atlanta, where people waited for hours to cast ballots in a downtown precinct that had just three voting machines for more than 3,000 registered voters. In the suburbs nearby, voters waited more than four hours only to discover their voting machines weren’t working at all.
There’s little good data on how many people were prevented from voting by malfunctions and long lines. But the number of people denied the vote is staggering when we include state laws that eliminate voters ahead of Election Day.
In Georgia, for example, a new program called “exact match,” which a judge had previously ruled racially discriminatory, was in full effect this year, requiring information on a person’s voter registration card to match information at the state’s Social Security office exactly.
“An accent or hyphen in one,” wrote Carol Anderson for The New York Times, “better be there in the other.”
The impact of “exact match?” The program deemed at least 53,000 voter registration cards unacceptable; 70 percent of them belonged to African Americans. And that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the 1.4 million voter registrations that Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office has canceled since 2012, according to WAMU, nearly 670,000 of which it canceled just last year.
“Those Neo-Jim Crow barriers were rising up from Georgia’s Confederate soil like ghosts,” wrote Anderson.
Voter suppression, it’s clear, is alive and well in 2018.
The problem goes well beyond the Deep South. In Texas, reports emerged of Spanish-speaking voters not being allowed to bring a translator with them into voting booths. In North Dakota, Native American voters were turned away when their IDs didn’t have a street address, which most reservations don’t have.
But the South’s history, of “the 150 years of valiant struggles by African American voters, [of] slaveholders severely limit[ing] suffrage in the region, [and of] disenfranchising non-slaveholders in an effort to preserve slavery,” as Keri Leigh Merrit wrote for The Bitter Southerner before Tuesday’s election, means that modern-day voter suppression is especially painful. She continues:
With the complete gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, white Republicans holding public offices in the Deep South immediately reverted back to many of the same tactics that their Confederate forbearers had mastered.
Now, as we stumble toward an uncertain future, we must look to our past to better understand the unjust designs and careful calculations of the people in power. We must reveal their corruption and expose the extent to which they win elections by force and by fraud … carrying on the Confederacy’s legacies — birthed in oligarchy, and ultimately dedicated to preserving white supremacy at any cost.
We couldn’t agree more. We’re working in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama to eliminate voter disenfranchisement and discriminatory voting practices. Our victory in Florida – the passage of Amendment 4 – is worth celebrating, but our democracy itself depends on our ability to protect voters everywhere.
P.S. Here are some other pieces that we think are valuable this week:
- In the migrant caravan, a teen traveling without his parents faces an agonizing choice by Michael Miller for The Washington Post
- Vaya con Dios: the impossible life of a judge on the US immigration frontline by Art Cullen for The Guardian
- Theater of forgiveness: the personal and cultural legacy of violence against black bodies by Hafizah Geter for Longreads
- ‘Saviors of the white race:’ Perpetrators of hate crimes see themselves as heroes, researchers say by Terrence McCoy for The Washington Post
SPLC’s Weekend Read is a weekly summary of the most important news reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequality, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive the Weekend Read every Saturday morning.
Photo Jeffrey Greenberg / UIG via Getty