At the intersection of race and politics in the United States lies voter suppression – the array of laws and election practices intended to make it harder for people of color to vote.
It became much easier for state legislators in power to wield the tools of voter suppression in 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to gut a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The decision meant that states with histories of racial discrimination no longer were required to pre-clear changes in voting laws with the federal government before they went into effect. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote that “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work … is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Since then, a torrent of voting measures has fallen on communities of color in states that were once subjected to preclearance and some that were not. These suppression tactics were on full display during the 2018 midterm elections, as newly enacted laws and regulations undeniably and disproportionately affected voters of color in several high-stakes races.
The SPLC formalized its commitment to ensuring the right to vote – and equity in the democratic process – with the formation of our Voting Rights Project. This legal working group aims to combat newly enacted barriers to voting as well as discriminatory laws that existed before 2013.
Eliminating Florida’s modern-day poll tax
In Florida, we’re working to eliminate felony disenfranchisement, which strips the right to vote from people with felony convictions for the rest of their lives. The law is rooted in the state’s 1868 constitution and was intended to ensure that white elites remained in power after the Civil War, when a majority of the state’s population was black and Southern states were required by the federal government to allow African Americans to vote.
As The Washington Post’s Tim Elfrink wrote in 2018:
The old guard’s only hope was to somehow ban black voters without violating Reconstruction acts passed by Congress after the Civil War. Huddled in Tallahassee backrooms throughout that cool January, they found just the ticket: a lifetime voting ban on anyone with a felony conviction. Combined with postwar laws that made it easy to saddle black residents with criminal records, legislators knew they could suppress black votes indefinitely.
This early voter suppression tactic worked spectacularly. It was easy to pin felony convictions on black people, who were heavily targeted by law enforcement under the Black Codes enacted just after the Civil War.
Today, the law is still having its intended effect, precisely because African Americans have continued to experience discrimination in the criminal justice system through the Jim Crow era and still to this day. Today, about one-fifth of all black adults in the state can’t vote.
In a historic vote last year, Floridians overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4 to abolish the discriminatory law and re-enfranchise more than 1.4 million people with previous felony convictions. It was the largest enfranchisement by a single law since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The state’s Republican-controlled legislature then stepped in to undermine the will of voters by passing Florida State Bill 7066, which restricts the vote to only those who are able to pay off all their fines and other court-ordered financial obligations – an impossible requirement for more than 1 million of the newly enfranchised.
The SPLC filed suit on behalf of returning citizens like Rosemary McCoy.
McCoy registered to vote in April and cast her ballot the next month. But now, the new law prevents her from voting because she owes about $7,000 in restitution, an amount that may as well be 10 times as much with her minimum wage income. Florida has notoriously punitive fines and fees – so high that many people can never pay them off.
Last week, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction that allows our plaintiffs to make their voices heard in the next election. The order doesn’t apply to everyone who is affected in the state – not yet. But it’s a critical first step in our legal effort to abolish Florida’s modern-day poll tax.
The disenfranchising legacy of Jim Crow
In Alabama, we worked hard to help pass a law in 2017 that clarified “crimes of moral turpitude” with respect to voting rights. This legal wording was purposefully ambiguous, making it easier to strip voting rights from African Americans who had were convicted of these nebulous acts.
Before passage of last year’s legislation, there was no definition on the books. That meant people with felony convictions in their past generally couldn’t register to vote. County registrars enjoyed almost sole discretion to determine which voters were disqualified from voting.
Yet, even with a newly minted definition on the books, many returning citizens in Alabama face continued discrimination.
One of our clients applied for and received notice from Alabama’s Board of Pardons and Paroles that his past conviction was not disqualifying, and he successfully registered to vote. Soon after, he received a letter from the Jefferson County Board of Registrars that he would be removed from the rolls.
We learned that the county’s attorney had determined his crime was disqualifying, in contradiction to the new state law. Ultimately, he was able to remain a registered voter. But the process was confusing, difficult and time-consuming. Without an advocate, our client may have simply given up like so many others before him.
Earlier this week, the SPLC’s voting rights field director, John Paul Taylor, shared this and other stories of our work with legislators in Georgia. In that state, African Americans are incarcerated at more than three times the rate of white people, and the state has the highest rate of people under correctional state supervision in the nation. That’s because the state often requires formerly incarcerated people to pay all of their legal fees and fines to end their supervision.
Beyond felony disenfranchisement, Georgia voters faced an onslaught of voting difficulties in 2018, including polling place closures, voter purges, missing absentee ballots, extreme wait times and a host of voter ID issues – all of which disproportionately prevented many students and people of color from casting their ballots.
Righting centuries-old wrongs
In December, we will give oral arguments in the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals for our lawsuit against Mississippi’s lifetime voting ban for people convicted of certain felonies. The list includes acts like stealing firewood from your neighbor’s yard. Mississippi’s state constitution specifically states that the law was designed to prevent freed slaves and their descendants from gaining political influence.
Between 1994 and 2017, nearly 50,000 Mississippians were banned for life from voting due to conviction. Today, one in six black adults cannot vote.
The SPLC is dedicated to eliminating the vestiges of Jim Crow in the Deep South, where too many people of color continue to be denied access to the ballot box.
And now that legislatures have been empowered by the U.S. Supreme Court to enact new voter restrictions, protecting the voting rights of all Americans is critically important.
As we head into 2020, we must ensure this most fundamental right. Please share this form on your personal networks so we can hear what is happening in your area.
We want to hear about the experiences of you and your neighbors when registering, verifying or changing your information, absentee ballots, voting or any other situation you encounter while trying to participate in local, state or federal elections.
Together, we will make our voices heard.
Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images