Cartoon credit: DonkeyHotey via Flickr Creative Commons.
By Thomas Kennedy
Back in 2000, George W. Bush won Florida by a mere 537 votes, propelling him to victory over Al Gore and effectively making him the 43rd president of the United States. Although for years there have been questions of fraud regarding the recount of those votes and debate over the Supreme Court decision that gave Bush the presidency, there's a deeper story that could have prevented that whole fiasco. That year, more than 12,000 eligible voters were purged from the rolls.
The scheme to suppress voters went like this: Former Republican Florida Governor Jeb Bush (George W Bush's brother) ordered his Secretary of State to purge the voter lists, effectively disenfranchising thousands of registered voters who are mostly Black and Hispanic Democrats. Three presidential elections later, this is a recurring scenario that threatens to suppress the votes of more people of color in Florida. If we don't heed the warnings of the past, the foundation that built our democracy - our right to vote freely for leaders who represent us - will continue to be undermined.
Florida is a key battleground state. Every time elections roll around, this becomes all too apparent. Yard signs, canvassers, and election ads pop up across the state, especially in the urban epicenters. This year's elections are no different.
With Election Day three months away, the lessons of the Bush-Gore election should be on the mind of all Floridians who care about free and fair elections. Donald Trump's erratic campaign has affected down ballot races as well and we are seeing previously GOP races that were deemed uncompetitive for Democrats now within striking distance. Senator Marco Rubio's opponent Patrick Murphy has narrowed the gap in polls with the most recent numbers showing him 5 points behind Rubio. Many pundits have attributed Rubio's support of Trump, who he recently called a con man yet still supported him, as the main reason for his recent slump.
It is obvious to anyone who pays attention to the electoral process that not only do Republicans benefit when minority voter turnout is low, they actively suppress those voters and have even admitted to doing so in the past. Floridians are all too familiar with chaotic elections, plagued by long voting lines, reduced early voting hours, massive voter purges and strict voter registration restrictions. GOP officials such as former Governor Charlie Crist and former GOP chairman Jim Greer, among others, admitted publicly that current Florida Governor Rick Scott deliberately imposed these hardships on voters to suppress Democratic voters and specifically minorities.
People have a higher chance of being struck by lightning than committing voter fraud, yet Scott has used that as an excuse to implement draconian voter restrictions for years. Most significant was the decision by Scott more than two years ago to disenfranchise more than 1.3 million Floridians convicted of a felony who have served their time by denying them the ability to restore their voting rights. Florida is a national embarrassment in this department, with one out of three African American men being unable to vote.
Scott claims that his harsh measures to deny voting rights to returning citizens are meant to keep people from ending back in prison. Yet former incarcerated people wait years, sometimes decades, for their rights to be restored and more often than not their requests go unanswered by an inefficient bureaucracy.
People of color have born the unfair burden of these efforts by Scott's administration to suppress vote. Eighty percent of the voters unjustly purged by the state of Florida in 2012 were people of color.
Voter registration efforts in Florida have also been targeted by Scott and the GOP in an effort to suppress new Democratic voters. In 2011, the Republican legislature passed a law which required voter registration agents to turn in their voter registration forms to the state board of elections within 48 hours or face a $1,000 fine and possible criminal consequences. Although the law was eventually overturned in 2012 by a federal judge, voter registration efforts in the state by groups such as the League of Women Voters and others were undermined.
As November 8 draws nearer, it would be wise to remember the racist history of voter suppression in the state of Florida. As Floridians, we can't forget that we have a sitting governor who has actively promoted racist voter suppression tactics in the hopes of achieving electoral victories for Republicans, not only in the Presidential elections, but down the ballot as well. We also can't forget that the Scott administration has been extremely supportive of Donald Trump's increasingly bizarre bid for the White House (Scott wrote an op-ed titled "Donald Trump has America's pulse.") We must be on our guard not to allow the governor and his allies to continue to employ the kind of tactics to suppress votes that have made Florida a national embarrassment. We would be wise to not let our guard down and take victory for granted.
Thomas Kennedy is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change Action.