By MOHAMED HAMALUDIN
George W. Bush won 537 popular votes more than Al Gore in Florida in the 2000 election, giving him the state’s 25 electoral votes for a total of 271, five more than his Democratic opponent.
Gore did win the popular vote, 50,996,582, to the Republican’s 50,456,062, but it is the Electoral College which decides the presidency. Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election, though she got 65,853,516 popular votes to Donald Trump’s 62,984,825.
What was particularly noteworthy was that more than 500,000 Floridians, including 139,000 African Americans, could not vote because they are ex-felons. With blacks voting overwhelmingly Democratic and whites splitting their votes, a Gore victory was highly likely.
The election at once showed the need to vote and the rigged system in which it was held.
Florida has historically put mostly unsurmountable roadblocks to restoring exfelons’ Civil Rights. Herald/Times reporter Mary Ellen Klas has noted the system dates back to at least 1868.
The state’s post-Civil War constitution was required to include provisions banning slavery and guaranteeing the rights of former slaves. One result was that black registered voters outnumbered whites 15,434 to 11,148 to – which laid the early groundwork for political shenanigans to compound the stark racism.
Depriving former felons of the right to vote came with the English colonists, Klas reported in August 2016. And Florida was among states that expanded the exclusionary rules to include minor offences such as vagrancy and petty theft, along with manipulating the court system, Mother Jones’
Pema Levy reported in October 2015.
A crime crackdown under then Gov. Jeb Bush in the 2000s put disproportionately more blacks in prison and deprived them of their civil rights.
The Brennan Center in a December 2016 report cited by Kristen M. Clark of the Herald/Times said that 1.6 million Floridians were denied the right to vote, representing 10 percent of the state’s population; blacks accounted for one in three of them.
A Sentencing Project report which Levy cited said that 50 percent of all ex-felons disenfranchised nationwide lived in Florida.
Nationally, the percentage for African Americans was 3.35; for Florida, it was 19.39.
Ex-felons are automatically deprived of their civil rights and unable to sit on juries, run for office or vote. But they can petition the State Board of Executive Clemency for restoration of those rights either online or in person for an allotted five to 10 minutes during the four hearings held annually.
The current clemency board comprises only Republicans and it hears fewer than 100 cases during each of the hearings, the Herald/Times’ Steve Bousquet reported; the backlog of petitions is more than 10,000.
The rules give the governor “the unfettered discretion to deny clemency at any time, for any reason” and granting clemency has been rare and capricious. Bush, who was faulted for injecting personal biases into the process, approved around 77,000 petitions during his eight years in office. His successor, Charlie Crist, topped that with 85,000 in one year – 2008, Levy reported.
Crist, a Republican turned Democrat, approved fewer than 6,000 petitions in his final year, while current Gov. Rick Scott approved fewer than 3,000 during his two terms in office — including one petitioner who said during his clemency hearing, “Actually I voted for you.”
Bousquet reported this month that Scott instituted a rule requiring all ex-felons to wait five years before they can apply for clemency. Previously, many of them, after completing their sentences, could have received clemency without applying for it, except for murderers and sex offenders.
Sporadic attempts to challenge this obviously unjust system met with little success.
But two recent developments hold out hope.
First, several churches and civil rights groups collected more than a million signatures for a petition to take the issue to voters and it will appear as Amendment 4 in the Nov. 6 election.
The text reads: “This amendment restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation. The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the Governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case by case basis.”
Secondly, there was good news for the national voting rights group Fair Elections Legal Network and the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Troll which sued the clemency board on behalf of Cutler Bay resident James Michael Hand and six others.
Federal Judge Mark Walker, in a Feb. 1 ruling in Hand v Scott, invalidated the highly subjective method by which the clemency board approves petitions. The judge — who did not rule on the constitutionality of the voting ban — gave the two sides until Monday, Feb. 12, to submit briefs to fix the system.
Because Walker’s ruling could be overturned on appeal, the referendum is the best way for scrapping the voting ban and is yet another reason for a massive voter turnout at the polls.