(First of two parts)
Over a half-century ago, CBS News and journalist Edward R. Murrow aired a documentary about Florida’s migrant farmworkers called “Harvest of Shame.” Murrow documented the long hours and low wages of the migrant farmers, along with the poor health care, housing and education for the migrant families.
A similar documentary could be done today focusing on the shame of Florida’s criminal justice policies that makes many crimes felonies that other states consider misdemeanors. As a result of their felony convictions, more individuals are disenfranchised in Florida than any other state. Of the 6 million individuals nationally who have lost their right to vote due to a felony conviction, 27 percent reside in Florida.
Florida TaxWatch recently held its annual meeting in Orlando, and one of the panel sessions was on Florida’s felon vote issue and the proposed constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to nonviolent felons that may appear on the 2018 ballot.
Why would TaxWatch be interested in the felon vote issue? For one reason, TaxWatch has had a long-standing interest in the criminal justice system and how to make it more effective. There are now around 105,000 individuals in Florida’s prisons. The more prisoners we have, the more jails and support personnel the taxpayers need to support.
Another tax-related issue is that ex-felons are denied the right to hold many jobs due to their felony conviction. I had lunch at the TaxWatch meeting with a tax collector in Florida who noted that she wanted to hire a person with great credentials who she has personally known for several decades. This was not possible due to a felony conviction in her youth involving a small amount of drugs. That same drug has now been legalized by Florida voters.
I was invited by TaxWatch to be one of the three panelists on the felon vote issue. Although a former Fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, I have long supported the restoration of voting rights to nonviolent felons. The libertarian-leaning Koch Foundation held meetings in Orlando on the same day as TaxWatch and they have supported making fewer crimes felony offenses.
The TaxWatch panel was called “From the Cell Block to the Ballot Box.” It was a catchy title, but somewhat deceiving in that only about a quarter of felons go to prison. The vast majority are given probation or are serving suspended sentences because they were first-time offenders who were charged with nonviolent offenses.
The felon vote and racism have been historically linked together in the southern states. Blacks make up 17 percent of Florida’s population, but make up 48 percent of Florida’s prison population. Unless one believes that blacks are inherently the “criminal class,” one would have to conclude that race has played a role in the disproportionate conviction of black citizens. Studies have shown that blacks are more likely to be arrested than whites for the same felony issue, and blacks are much more likely to be convicted than whites for the same felony offense.
The felon vote issue in Florida and the South emerged after the Civil War. Many former Confederates lost the right to vote for participating in the rebellion, and many former slaves received the right to vote for the first time. As a result, blacks held voting majorities in many southern states and many counties within those states.
Florida’s black population was about 45 percent of the total population after the Civil War but, due to the factors mentioned above, blacks were often a majority of the electorate. In 1867, there were 25,582 registered voters in Florida. 15,434 were black and 11,148 were white. This was something white voters could not accept.
After Reconstruction ended in the South, Florida and all the southern states passed laws and drafted new constitutions designed to eliminate the black voter. Florida was the first state to adopt the poll tax in 1889. Florida also adopted the Grandfather Clause, the white primary, the literacy test, the eight ballot box law and tissue ballots, along with the denial of voting rights for felons as a means to eliminate the black voter. By 1900, most blacks and Republicans lost the franchise and not a single black held a state position.
The racial motivation behind the felon vote was apparent during the discussion of the issue in southern states. At Alabama’s 1901 constitution, one delegate stated: “the crime of wife beating alone would disqualify 60 percent of Negroes.” At the 1906 Virginia constitution, state senator Carter Glass said Virginia’s felon vote law “would eliminate the darkey as a political factor in less than five years.” The end result, according to Carter, “will be the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.”
(Part 2: The options on the felon vote)
Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.