Florida has what many consider to be the most rigid and unfair felony disenfranchisement law in the nation. The highly respected Sentencing Project declared in a recent report that “in 2010, more people are disenfranchised in Florida than in any other state and Florida’s disenfranchisement remains highest among the 50 states.” We are not thrilled that Florida leads the nation in denying more citizens of the right to vote than any other state. How far out of line is Florida? In the United States as a whole, 1.77 percent of whites and 7.66 percent of blacks are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. In Florida, 10 percent of the voting age population (VAP) is disenfranchised, but 23 percent — or almost one out of four black voters — is disenfranchised. Nationally, about 6 million individuals have lost the right to vote due to a felony conviction; about 1.7 million or 27 percent of all those disenfranchised reside in Florida. The felon vote was part of a package of legislation designed to cope with the emergence of black voter majorities throughout the South after the Civil War. In 1867, 15,434 of Florida’s 25,582 registered voters were black, something that Florida’s white voters were unwilling to accept. In fact, it was not until after the Civil War that Florida banned all voters with a felony conviction.
At the end of Reconstruction and the withdrawal of federal troops that had been protecting blacks, every Southern state drafted new state constitutions and passed laws designed to eliminate the black voter. Florida was the first state in the nation to adopt the poll tax in 1889. Florida raised about a dozen barriers to black voting, including the white primary, long residency requirements, the eight-ballot box law and the felon vote. This effort was highly successful for, within a decade, most black voters were removed from the voting rolls. By the end of the 19th century, not a single black held any state legislative seat even though blacks were nearly half of Florida’s population.
Supporters of the felony disenfranchisement laws argue that it was race neutral and applied equally to blacks and whites. But an examination of the states adopting felony disenfranchisement laws demonstrated a clear racial intent behind the law. At Alabama’s 1901 constitutional convention, one delegate stated that “the crime of wife beating alone would disqualify 60 percent of Negroes.” At the 1906 Virginia constitutional convention, state Sen. Carter Glass contended that the law “would eliminate the darkey as a political factor in less than five years.” The end result, said Glass, “will be the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.”
Even though Florida’s long history of black voter suppression was clear, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Johnson vs. Bush (2005), overturned a panel that ruled against Florida. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case on appeal.