By MOHAMED HAMALUDIN
Those who are still wavering over whether to vote and whom to support need only look at how the Republicans who have been running Florida have been treating African Americans who have paid their debt to society for felony offences.
The disgusting behavior was detailed in an Oct. 24 story by the Reuters news agency and, like many issues of importance to black Floridians that the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott got their hands on, it makes you want to weep.
Today, half a century after the struggle for the right to vote, Reuters reported that 1,500,000 Floridians who have served their time in prison cannot vote in this year’s presidential election because the state has refused to restore the franchise to them.
To put that number in perspective, consider that nearly 48 percent of the people locked up in Florida are African Americans (in a state where blacks are under 18 percent of the population). That means that almost one in two of the 1.5 million former inmates denied the basic right to vote are blacks.
To be fair, this disenfranchisement did not start with this crop of Republicans in power. As Reuters pointed out, the practice started in the mid-1800s. But they have certainly done their best to worsen the situation. They made it more difficult in 2011 for former inmates to be granted civil rights and, in the five years since then, only 2,339 of those who filed petitions to have the franchise restored to them were successful.
(Contrast that with the more than 155,000 former inmates whose civil rights were restored between 2007 and 2011 under then Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican who later switched to the Democratic Party.)
Having their civil rights restored after leaving prison means more than just being able to vote. It means also being able to sit on a jury and being able to hold elected office. But it is the denial of the right to vote that is the most damning.
This denial of the franchise makes it impossible for the black community to have an effective voice in selecting the government of its choice and influencing policy decisions that affect them, such as restoring the right to vote. With its electoral strength so substantially diluted, they have to live under elected officials whom others have put in power.
Indeed, it is fair to assume that the occupant of the Governor’s Mansion and the makeup of the Legislature – who, among other things, determine the rules for restoration of voting rights – would be different if all African Americans of voting age were able to cast their ballots.
The impact would even be wider felt in a state that usually is a key to winning the White House. The notorious loss by Democrat Al Gore to Republican George W. Bush in 2000 is a case in point. Bush garnered just 537 votes more than Gore in Florida, a margin that would have been overcome if more blacks had been able to vote because, especially as the current presidential campaign shows, they overwhelmingly support Democrats.
Of course, Florida is not the only state that has traditionally withheld restoration of civil rights to former inmates. But a growing number have been gradually lessening the restrictions — more than 20 of them in the past 20 years, according to Reuters.
But Florida is one of four states that completely deny such rights, the others being Kentucky, Iowa and Virginia. And even Virginia, under a Democratic governor, has restored civil rights to some 67,000 former inmates. On the other hand, Florida, under a Republican governor, has made the procedure for applying for rights restoration even more difficult.
In Florida, former inmates must wait between five and seven years just to apply, the rationale being they must show, within that time, that they are no longer a danger to society. Then they have to file court-certified documents for each conviction, which itself is a highly discouraging requirement, and then appear before a clemency board comprising the governor and members of the Florida Cabinet for a hearing.
“Clemency is an act of mercy. There is no right or guarantee,” Reuters quoted Scott as telling one group of petitioners. In fact, the governor has the deciding vote. “If I deny, it’s over,” he said.
Reuters reports that more than 10,500 petitioners for rights restoration are currently waiting to be heard.
In recent years, Republican politicians across the nation have maneuvered their way into becoming majorities in state Legislatures and then have proceeded to enact state laws that would not pass muster nationally. These include wide- ranging legislation to suppress the vote, alongside the refusal of many states to restore the civil rights of those who have served their sentences.