Federal courts across the country have finally recognized that legislative maneuvers designed to limit access to the ballot box violate federal law against discrimination. In effect, the courts agreed with critics who have been saying for years that such efforts are racist.
Since mid-July, federal courts have used the Voting Rights Act to strike down voter ID laws in Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin and North Dakota. Specifically, the courts have focused on the protection afforded by Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. That provision outlaws any voting procedure that “results in a denial or abridgment” of the right to vote based on race.
One of the most significant rulings was issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. A three-judge panel denounced a blatantly racist effort by North Carolina legislators to impose new voter ID requirements and to end voting procedures favored by blacks, including voter registration on Election Day and early voting. The law also blocked out-of-precinct voting.
Florida also has a voter ID law, but it allows 12 different forms of identification. This is deemed ample and flexible enough to allow most voters to pass legal muster.
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In the North Carolina case, the court overturned the abolition of same-day registration, but since Florida — unfortunately — has never afforded its own voters that particular benefit, the Sunshine State’s voters are not affected.
It’s not because Florida’s Republican-majority lawmakers didn’t try to restrict the vote. The Legislature’s attempt to limit access to the ballot box by restricting early-voting days and voter-registration drives, among other things, were eventually overturned by litigation.
But among the provisions thrown out by the Fourth Circuit Court’s ruling is a rule that disallows ballots cast in the wrong precinct. Under this rule, a ballot cast in the wrong precinct, for any reason, is don’t count. Not only are votes for precinct-specific positions (county commissioner, say) disallowed, but so is the choice for president.
This makes no sense, which is why the court struck it down. But it’s still the law in Florida, where the provision has been upheld by a different circuit court for this part of the country.
More serious is the disenfranchisement of 1.5 million potential Florida voters who are shut out of the ballot because they are former felons.
Ours is one of only a few states that still upholds this odious and unfair provision, thanks to a rule adopted by Gov. Rick Scott and his Cabinet in 2011. And Florida is also the leader in terms of the total number of voters disenfranchised by this method.
The law’s supporters will deny that it has a specifically racial intent. But in its voter-restriction ruling last month, the Fourth Circuit judges explicitly cited “the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina.”
The same could be said for Florida. In this state, it is estimated that 23.32 percent of African Americans were disenfranchised by the voting restriction against ex-felons — the highest percentage in the nation, amounting to more than 500,000 votes.
It is long past time for Florida to get this discriminatory provision off the books. If lawmakers don’t do it, Floridians should do it by referendum. That’s doing it the hard way, but it’s without a doubt the right thing to do. And, in political terms, it could be a game-changer for the Sunshine State.