With nary a peep from the mainstream media, the US Supreme
Court has stabbed yet another partisan knife into the American electoral
This time the court has let stand Florida's infamous
137-year-old ban on voting rights for ex-felons. It was this same Jim Crow ban
that the GOP used to disenfranchise thousands of Floridians in 2000, providing
the margin by which George W. Bush took the presidency. The ruling continues to
take the vote from millions of African-Americans and non-violent offenders --
and, in practice, others who have broken no laws at all. It is highly likely to
strengthen the lock of the Republican Party and its future candidates on the US
In Florida 2000, Republican Governor Jeb Bush used the ban
as a pretext for disenfranchising tens of thousands of mostly black voters who
committed no crime at all, but whose names allegedly resembled those who did.
In the lead-up to his brother's test at the polls, Bush hired a Republican
computer firm to compile a dubious list which Bush then used to deprive perhaps
120,000 Floridians, perhaps more, of their right to vote.
It has since been shown that thousands of those who lost
their vote had never been convicted of anything. According to the Sentencing
Project, the number of alleged Florida ex-felons effectively deprived of their
right to vote in 2000 may have been as high as 600,000, roughly a thousand
times as many as allegedly gave George W. Bush his margin of victory.
Ohio's laws encompass no ban on ex-felon voting rights. But
Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell also served as the state co-chair
of the Bush-Cheney campaign. As chief administrator of Ohio's 2004 election,
Blackwell allowed county Boards of Elections to send threatening letters to
thousands of ex-felons or alleged ex-felons. Letters also went to many
registered voters who had been convicted of no crime at all, helping give
George W. Bush a second term.
Franklin County (Columbus) Board of Elections Director Matt
Damschroder, former head of the county's GOP, admitted to the Free Press that
in an average year he cancels 200-300 felons voting rights. But he said in the
2004 election he cancelled the rights of 3,500 alleged former felons to vote.
Many of their convictions date back to 1998, and some who received letters had
merely been indicted, and had never been convicted of any felony at all.
In 1870 the US adopted the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing all
Americans the right to vote, regardless of race (but not gender). But white
racist regimes in the former Confederacy quickly found ways to circumvent the
One such tool was the ex-felon ban. Along with poll taxes,
the grandfather clause (disenfranchising anyone whose grandfather had been a
slave), lynching and other violent intimidation, the attack on ex-felon voting
rights was aimed directly at a black community that had started to gain
political power in the South. Under the white supremacist Democratic Party and
its terrorist adjunct, the Ku Klux Klan, blacks were subjected to unjust and
often absurd prosecutions that stuck them with felony convictions. As the 20th
century dawned, very significant percentages of the black male population thus
lost their vote.
When Richard Nixon launched the "War on Drugs" in
the 1970s, Florida and other states were given a modern pretext by which to
further attack the black community. The attack escalated in the 1980s under
Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, with a nationwide wave of arrests that
shredded much of the Constitution. By 2000, much of the black male population
in many states had been convicted of non-violent crimes, mostly involving
Some 10 percent of the black population in Florida --
possibly more -- remains effectively disenfranchised. Since the black community
now regularly votes 90 percent for Democratic candidates, this represents a
huge and vital windfall for the GOP. Without it, Al Gore would have carried
Florida 2000 -- and thus the presidency -- by tens of thousands of votes,
rather than allegedly losing it by several hundred.
Today only Florida, Kentucky and Virginia permanently
deprive felons of their franchise once they have cleared parole. Ten other
states restrict those rights in various ways. But especially in Florida, that
ban remains a major key to Republican supremacy.
According to the Sentencing Project, some 4.7 million
Americans -- one in 43 adults -- have currently or permanently lost their right
to vote due to a felony conviction. The Project says some 1.4 million of those
are African-American men, 13 percent of that group as a whole, more than seven
times the national average. In Florida and other states where ex-felons are
permanently or partially disenfranchised, fully 25 percent of the black male
population cannot cast a ballot.
Among those legally challenging the ban has been Jau'dohn
Hicks, a Florida firefighter and emergency medical technician freed from prison
in 1991. Father of three daughters, Hicks says, "I work. I pay taxes. I'm
raising my children -- I want my voice back."
Based in part on the federal Voting Rights Act, Hicks's case
was carried by the Brennan Center, the Florida Justice Center, the UNC School
of Law Center for Civil Rights and others. It was supported by leaders of the
African Methodist Episcopal Church. The European Court of Human Rights has
pointedly opposed blanket disenfranchisement of any specific ethnic or racial group.
But the US Federal Court of Appeals of the Eleventh Circuit
has upheld it. The US Supreme Court's refusal to hear this challenge now
effectively leaves it intact.
The court's action is especially ironic in view of its 2000
Bush v. Gore decision, giving George W. Bush the presidency. That infamous 5-4
vote overruled the Florida Supreme Court and stopped a recount, sparing Bush
"irreparable harm" under the 14th Amendment. The decision continues
to astonish legal scholars worldwide, and on all sides of the American
spectrum. At least two sitting justices -- Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas
-- had clear conflicts of interest, but refused to recuse themselves. The five
pro-Bush justices then warned that their partisan intrusion, trashing state
jurisdiction, was a one-time decision, not to be used as precedent for future
But an historic legal reason for a decision like leaving
Florida's felony ban intact would likely be the "states rights"
constitutional barrier against federal intrusion into election procedures. The
otherwise conservative justices trashed that tradition to give Bush the
presidency in 2000. Now the court seems to be using it in a way that may help
give it to his brother in 2008.
However the justices may explain all this, leaving in tact
the ban on ex-felon voting rights continues the Jim Crow disenfranchisement of
millions of African-Americans and others, the vast majority of whose crimes --
if any -- have been non-violent.
So without a peep from the mainstream media, the court now
gouged yet another GOP wound into an American electoral system already reeling
from partisan manipulation.
Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman are co-authors of HOW THE GOP STOLE AMERICA'S
2004 ELECTION & IS RIGGING 2008, now available at www.freepress.org and
www.harveywasserman.com, and, with Steve Rosenfeld, of WHAT HAPPENED IN OHIO,
available in spring, 2006, from The New Press.