The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What modern voter suppression looks like in Florida

While the tactics are far more subtle, the goal remains the same

People marching during Souls to the Polls on the last day of early voting Sunday in Miami. (David Santiago/AP)

Perhaps more than ever, today’s presidential election could come down to who has access to the vote in Florida.

Until 2018, Florida was one of only four states that permanently banned people with felony convictions from voting. This draconian measure, which particularly targeted people of color, motivated multiple grass-roots organizations to get together and amend the Florida constitution on the November 2018 ballot. Sixty-five percent of Floridians voted yes on what became Amendment 4 to restore voting rights to former felons.

Florida’s Republican-led legislature and governor then decided to overrule the will of the voters by creating new obstacles for former felons to vote, especially paying fees and fines. In many ways, it amounts to a poll tax by a new name. Some estimates indicated 1.4 million Floridians would have received their right to vote back. But as a result of the legislature’s actions, only about 300,000 of them were eligible to register to vote.

Understanding that disenfranchisement has become a successful route to securing political office, outside funders masked by the mysterious “Keep Our Constitution Clean” political committee, proposed an amendment on the November 2020 ballot. Little is known about the donors since Florida does not require political committees to disclose much information. But the purpose of the new ballot measure, also titled Amendment 4, is clear: to make it even more difficult for future grass-roots initiatives to pass by forcing the people to have to vote on a measure twice before it goes into effect.

The result of this legal maneuvering in Florida is a 21st-century version of Jim Crow, now matured into James Crow Esq. The intent — to restrict minority community access to the ballot box — is the same, but the methods of voter suppression have become more sophisticated.

Jim Crow arose as a reaction to Reconstruction, as White people in the South and beyond reacted to seeing people they previously enslaved and viewed as their inferiors emancipated. As Black Americans gained citizenship, political power, and men gained the right to vote, White men who’d previously held a monopoly on political power passed new laws that not only mandated segregation, but also effectively stripped Black people of their rights.

They did so across Florida. Formally incorporated in 1896 — the same year the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson the “separate but equal” doctrine that helped enshrine Jim Crow — Miami suppressed or manipulated the Black vote to adopt and uphold policies that worked against the interests of most Black residents and other people of color. Miami’s third mayor, John Sewell, who held office from 1903 to 1907, nonchalantly wrote in his memoir about how he exploited a group of Black men he called his “black artillery.” Whenever Sewell wanted to influence or manipulate a local election, he’d have Black laborers who worked for him registered to vote and coerce them, or use his influence to persuade them, to bend local politics to his will.

These Black laborers had everything to lose, including their ability to feed their families and their very lives in the Jim Crow South. On Election Day in 1920, now 100 years ago, a White mob of terrorists lynched a man named Julius “July” Perry, murdered a number of other local Black residents (the total casualties remain unknown today) and burned more than two dozen Black homes and other structures in Ocoee in central Florida — about 13 miles west of Orlando — after a Black man tried to exercise his right to vote.

In 1940, just a year before many Black Americans patriotically rallied in a segregated military to fight fascism abroad, domestic terrorists at home also made it clear that exercising their right to vote would be dangerous. That year, the Ku Klux Klan in Miami hung up a life-size effigy of a Black person lynched on a street post with a sign with a racial slur. For Black Americans in Florida, therefore, voting could cost them their lives.

While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed many of the worst and most overt of these tactics, people seeking to suppress votes have revived related tactics through new initiatives. This was made even easier when the Supreme Court invalidated the central protective tenets of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.

And so, legal maneuvering, deterrence and suspicion remain alive in Florida today. A new report revealed that in 2016 Donald Trump’s team adopted a strategy of data mining that particularly targeted Black voters in South Florida by blasting them with ads and misleading or false information to suggest Hillary Clinton could not clinch the election and to keep them from showing up at the polls. Their efforts succeeded in depressing minority voter turnout.

Casting doubt and suspicion on mail-in ballots — which have been especially welcome in the midst of a global pandemic — has proven to be another strategy to keep Black and brown people from their right to vote. Thousands of ballots in southern Florida have already been flagged for possible errors, such as a potential mismatch in a voter’s on-file signature, that can lead to votes being thrown out. Data shows that in this region, Black voters are nearly twice as likely as White voters to find their ballots rejected. For Latinx voters, the rate of ballot rejection is even higher.

Racially disparate rates of enforcement of these voting policies suggest the real purpose behind such requirements: disenfranchisement. This is compounded by the fact that the supervisors of elections in each of Florida’s 67 counties can decide which votes count and which ones will not. Just last month, a uniformed and on-duty police officer in Miami wore a pro-Trump protective face mask inside a polling location, a violation of police department protocol, because it could well have intimidated and influenced voters.

Voting is a fundamental right that serves as the backbone of our democracy. Adding barriers and stripping communities of their power only serves to uphold a power structure that serves the few. Undoing these injustices must remain a top priority.