Florida Gov. Rick Scott and other Cabinet-level officials voted unanimously Wednesday to roll back state rules enacted four years ago that made it easier for many ex-felons to regain the right to vote.
Now, under the new rules, even nonviolent offenders would have to wait five years after the conclusion of their sentences to apply for the chance to have their civil rights restored.
Just when you thought the words "Florida" and "election" stopped being a joke, now there's this.
Let's go back in history a bit, all the way to 2000 when Florida became the laughingstock of the country for holding up the presidential election in Bush v. Gore.
One of the many discoveries from the 2000 disaster in the Everglades was the finding that more than 200,000 former felons, people who had paid their theoretical "debt to society" had been frozen out of the electoral process. Similar state-by-state analysis found more than 4 million Americans either serving a felony sentence or having previously been convicted of a felony were forced to sit out that ignominious election.
Why do we keep former felons from voting? The exclusion of felons from the ballot box is a "form of civil death, derived from medieval Europe," according to Marc Mauer. The fear, in ancient times, was the former felon disrupting the voting process by intimidating voters or stealing ballots.
From Colonial times, the right to vote in the U.S. was class, race and gender-dependent. White male landowners could vote, while women, slaves, convicted felons, the illiterate and the landless were disenfranchised. Except for convicted felons, all these other exclusions have been constitutionally removed over the past 200 years.
But certain regions of the country were more stubborn than others. Most southern states enforced voting disenfranchisement, along with poll taxes and literacy requirements, well into the 20th century. The passage and enforcement of these Disenfranchisement laws were a form of racial exclusion designed to keep African-Americans from participating in democracy.
Though the Voting Rights Act eliminated most of these racist roadblocks, felon disenfranchisement was never addressed. Today, more than 13% of African-American males are now disenfranchised by virtue of the criminal justice system.
In 2001, the bi-partisan National Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by former presidents Ford and Carter, called for an end to voter disenfranchisement for ex-felons. In 2007, then Governor Charlie Crist of Florida provided civil rights restoration automatically for most former felons.
So today, in 2011, why the sudden interest in Florida for bringing back ex-felon disenfranchisement laws? Did we have another "controversial" election recently?
The vote carries national political implications. Many GOP leaders never forgave then-Gov. Charlie Crist for his move to make civil rights restoration almost automatic for most ex-felons.
The 2007 rule change spurred more than 154,000 ex-felons, according to the ACLU, to earn the ability to register to vote ahead of the 2008 election in which then-candidate Barack Obama swept Florida. Experts say many of those new voters were likely Democratic-leaning African Americans.
Ah, so had the former governor Crist not allowed those uppity former felons the right to vote, Florida might not have gone the way of the uppity candidate named Obama. After all, Obama's margin of victory there was slightly less than 200,000 votes.
I realize the right to vote is difficult to get worked up about, particularly in a society where 50% or more of eligible voters chooses not to exercise that right every two years.
But the reasons for continuing a medieval punishment such as ex-felon disenfranchisement in today's society boil down to simple political motivation: voter suppression is about power and how to maintain it, and if you have to suppress a hundred thousand more African-Americans and their right to vote in the process, then that's what you'll do.
Unfortunately, several other states are following Florida's lead.
Elsewhere in the country, newly elected GOP leaders are advocating new voting laws that they argue would help curb election fraud. Democrats are pushing back, arguing that Republicans are simply looking for ways to depress voting among core Obama supporters.Nothing like living in a "post-racial," "color-blind" world, huh? Maybe it really is Disney World down there.
UPDATE: Apropos of nothing, but when I was in Tampa last week for spring training, the Florida governor threw out the first pitch at one of the Yankees games I attended. The boos and jeers were deafening, which was surprising given that he's been in office for all of two months.