Elections

Florida has a history of making it harder for black citizens to vote

The central portion of the history Florida Capitol dates to 1846, and it has been restored to look as it did in 1902.
The central portion of the history Florida Capitol dates to 1846, and it has been restored to look as it did in 1902. Tallahassee Area CVB

In 1868, the authors of the Florida’s post-Civil War constitution were faced with a major dilemma: There were more blacks legally registered to vote in Florida than whites.

After the Civil War, Congress declared Florida had no legal government on March 2, 1867.

As a condition for rejoining the Union, state officials had to adopt the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments — ending slavery and protecting the rights of the newly freed slaves — and the new state constitution had to conform with the U.S. Constitution.

But Congress also prohibited much of the traditional white power structure from registering to vote, disenfranchising them as punishment for their involvement in the Civil War. Freed blacks, who comprised less than half of Florida’s population, were allowed to vote.

So, in the fall of 1867, there were 28,582 Floridians registered to vote; 11,148 were white and 15,434 were black, according to Jerrell H. Shofner’s “The Constitution of 1868,” written for Florida Historical Quarterly in 1963.

The 46 delegates to Florida’s 1868 Constitutional Convention included only 18 blacks. Few of the black delegates were literate, and the white delegates had their own ideas.

After a power struggle between a faction of Northerners supported by black delegates and the conservative Republicans in control, a constitution emerged that was written by a group Shofner described as moderates. That “moderate” group was sympathetic to more conservative white supremacists.

The result was a new constitution that included several provisions that were intended to dilute the influence of the black vote.

Smaller counties were given their own representative in the state Legislature but larger counties, which were dominated by blacks, were given multiple representatives based on their population. With black strength concentrated in nine counties in the north-central part of the state, the arrangement insured white control of the Legislature.

The governor also was given authority to appoint county officials, guaranteeing he would select whites to control the key jobs.

The result, boasted W.J. Purman, a leader of the faction whose views prevailed was that they had “kept Florida from becoming ‘niggerized,’ ” Shofner wrote. (Today, Purman’s quote is often cited by opponents to Florida’s disenfranchisement laws, such as the ACLU of Florida and Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, as evidence of the real intent of the laws.)

For a short time, blacks were elected to higher office in Florida.

In 1870, Josiah Walls, a former slave and Union soldier from Alachua County, became Florida’s first black member of Congress, and 19 blacks were elected to the 76-member Florida Legislature.

But progress was short-lived and Florida’s legacy of vote suppression continued for another century.

Between the adoption of a new state Constitution in 1885 and laws adopted by the white-dominated Florida Legislature, the state effectively disenfranchised all black voters, said Darryl Paulson, a retired professor of history at the University of South Florida and an expert on black voter suppression in Florida.

In a three-part series for the Tampa Bay Times in 2013, Paulson detailed how the state permitted only whites to vote in the primary, denied access to the ballot to anyone who couldn’t read and imposed lengthy residency requirements as a condition for voting.

And, while other Southern states were adopting similar provisions, Florida had the dubious honor of becoming the first state to adopt a $2 poll tax as a requirement for voting.

By 1940, as few as 6 percent of blacks in Florida were registered to vote. By 1947, the number was estimated at 16 percent.

In 1960, Gadsden County’s population was comprised of a majority of blacks — 12,261 of voting age — but only seven were registered to vote.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed these and other discriminatory voting practices but, scholars say, felon voting laws remains as vestiges of the 1800s and effectively serve as obstacles to black voting.

In March 2011, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet, all newly elected Republicans, repealed a measure that allowed for the automatic reinstatement of the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of former felons.

The new rules required people convicted of nonviolent felonies to wait five to seven years after the completion of their terms before applying to have their rights restored.

The rules not only reversed the reforms adopted during former Gov. Charlie Crist’s term, they imposed stricter waiting periods than those under former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Scott and the 2011 Legislature also made it harder to vote in Florida, regardless of race. They reduced the number of hours of early voting — hours which were extended in 2013 but still remain at fewer than in 2010. And they passed restrictions on voter registration drives.

Paulson, a Republican who has served as an expert witness in Florida’s redistricting lawsuits, is critical of the state’s restrictive laws. He says they were designed to suppress black voters and disproportionately impact that population, “they are one size fits all” and also disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of whites.

“We no longer have wholesale voter discrimination but Florida’s current legacy is having one of the most restrictive felon voting laws in the nation,” he said. “23.3 percent of Florida’s voting age black population are barred from voting due to a felony conviction. When one out of nearly every four black voters is denied the right to vote, that is a crime in itself.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

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