In the 100 years of Jim Crow laws in America, black voters suffered all kinds of intimidation in order to cast their ballots. They were forced to recite passages from the U.S. Constitution to show they were literate, and often failed character tests because white authorities charged blacks with misdemeanors for petty infractions such as spitting on the sidewalk.
These days, allegations persist that white people in authority are disenfranchising black voters, though in ways more covert than during segregation.
Before the recent election, the state's Republican-led executive offices seem to have masterminded a plan to keep African American voters -- a group that voted overwhelming for Al Gore -- out of the voting booth. The plan, if it can be called that, began last spring when the Florida Secretary of State's office sent out lists containing 173,000 names to the state's 67 county election offices.
The list, generated by a Boca Raton data-collection agency, Database Technologies, identified voters suspected of being deceased, out-of-state felons or double-registered voters. County election offices were supposed to double-check names and birth dates and, if appropriate, purge those named from voter rolls. Some counties did. Some didn't.
The reason? County election officials were concerned that Database Technologies (which merged with an Atlanta company last spring) was providing bad information.
In Orange County, June Condron, the deputy supervisor of elections, said she became "very nervous" about the list when a prominent Orlando businessman was identified as a felon, and therefore unable to vote in this state. Her office also suspected that the list greatly exaggerated the 400 felons from Texas it reported were living in Orange County. (A revised list eventually targeted just 10 county residents as Texas felons.)
The NAACP and the Advancement Project have been investigating the lists to determine to what extent they disqualified eligible voters. The felony list is of particular concern because a disproportionate number of African Americans, especially black males, are felons.
"We may never know if this was intentional," says Edward Jackson, a spokesman for the Project, a nonprofit group of social-interest attorneys. "There have been so many official decisions that contributed to African-American disenfranchisement. But it doesn't make sense to rule out that there was not collusion."
In Orange County, at least, it doesn't appear that voters were turned away in large numbers from the voting booth. Precincts were supplied with affidavits for anyone wrongly identified and purged for being a felon. Other voters, those who had not moved or died, were given permission to vote by an election official who had access to the county's election database. Condron says she received only one complaint -- from a woman who was delayed 30 minutes while her voting status was sorted out.
Even so, the 500 affidavits that Jackson's agency has gathered point to a problem.
Gov. Jeb Bush has promised that a committee will investigate voting irregularities and make recommendations.
Here's one the committee should consider: change Florida's Constitution so that felons can vote without having to ask that their rights be restored. Indeed, Florida could join three other progressive states and let inmates vote in prison.
Victim-rights groups will complain, of course. But prohibiting felons from voting has closer ties to Jim Crow and keeping blacks out of the polling booth than it does to victim advocacy. If Jeb Bush is sincere about voter reform, he won't forget this aspect in a state where one in three black males has lost the right to vote, and elected officials are still open to charges that they've muted democracy.