Gov. Rick Scott Revives Law Originally Intended To Disenfranchise Blacks

March 11, 2011 10:00 am ET — Kate Conway

Rep. Eric Cantor

On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL), along with his cabinet, reinstated a rule with major civil rights implications requiring felons to wait at least five years beyond the end of their sentence before applying to regain the right to vote. From the Palm Beach Post:

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet on Wednesday imposed a minimum five-year waiting period for convicted felons to apply to have their rights restored, setting up a more onerous standard than the state has used for the past three decades.

Gov. Jeb Bush (R) dismantled the five-year waiting period in 2004, in the wake of the controversial 2000 presidential election, during which thousands of Floridians were disenfranchised after a state voter database erroneously labeled them felons. The effects of the felony disenfranchisement law in 2000 were that "over 600,000 non-incarcerated citizens" were prevented from voting "in a presidential election decided by 537 votes." In 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist (I) did away with the application process for nonviolent felons and allowed for the automatic restoration of civil rights upon sentence completion.

Gov. Scott's move to turn back the clock is unusual in itself; the only other states with similar laws are Virginia and Kentucky. But the historical context and the practical implications of the law are far more troubling than Scott's restoration of the harshly punitive policy.

Felon disenfranchisement rules are rooted in post-Civil War statutes designed to circumvent national laws guaranteeing blacks the right to vote. When Florida was forced during Reconstruction to adopt a state constitution recognizing the right to vote (for men) regardless of race, the constitution it ratified included a felon disenfranchisement provision for which, according to a report from the Florida Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, there is historical "evidence of a racial animus." According to the American Constitution Society:

General disenfranchisement laws that had applied to all criminals were tailored to particularized crimes that were committed more frequently by blacks than crimes that were committed more often by whites. Thus, while today's felony disenfranchisement laws are facially neutral, many are inherited from an underlying legacy of racist voting restrictions.

Specifically, the version of Florida's constitution still in effect prevents felons who have paid their debt to society from voting until a Clemency Board — composed of the governor and three cabinet members — grants restoration of civil rights. This rule still has major racial implications. As in most states, Florida's prison population is disproportionately black, and as of 2006, over 13 percent of Florida's non-incarcerated voting-age black population had lost the right to vote.

This isn't the first time Gov. Scott has shown insensitivity to racial issues: he bungled a recent attempt to relate to the Florida's black lawmakers when he suggested that they all grew up in the poor. This is not to say that Rick Scott is a racist (although he is homophobicpower-hungryshort-sighted, and hostile to poor people). But as Lisa Rab writes in the Broward-Palm Beach New Times: "Some might say Scott just wanted to disenfranchise Democratic voters. Or that he's tough on crime. But half of the state's prison population is black. And Scott just made sure many of those citizens will never be able to vote against him."