Blacks sue Florida over racist voting law

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Almost a third of black men in Florida were denied a vote in the US presidential election in November because of a "discriminatory" law enacted just after America's slaves were emancipated.

Almost a third of black men in Florida were denied a vote in the US presidential election in November because of a "discriminatory" law enacted just after America's slaves were emancipated.

Florida is one of 14 states that bar anyone with a criminal record from voting for the rest of their lives. The impact falls hardest on the black community, where rates of conviction, especially for non-violent drugs crimes, run far higher than among whites. And Florida is leagues ahead in the number of blacks it has thus disenfranchised.

All that may change, however, depending on the fate of a little-noticed lawsuit filed last September - even before the fiasco of November's election - alleging that in allowing laws which date back to 1868 to remain on its books, Florida is deliberately, and with racist intent, muzzling the voices of black voters in federal and state elections.

The suit has gained new urgency in the light of November's race, which gave a whisker-thin victory in Florida - and hence the country - to George Bush. It alleges that 107,000 blacks in the state who have served time, but who are now back in society, were unable to vote because of the laws. Nine in 10 blacks who did vote chose Mr Gore.

The issue surfaces also in a second lawsuit filed last week by a collection of civil rights groups focusing on various obstacles allegedly put in the way of black voters on election day. That suit will form the background of black rights marches to be held across the country this week to coincide with Saturday's inauguration of Mr Bush.

The alleged irregularities notably concerned the purging of thousands of names of blacks from voters roles and the use of antiquated voting equipment, particularly in black districts. In addition, however, thousands of blacks in Florida received letters saying they could not vote because they had criminal records when, in fact, they did not.

While secondary to the larger question of why released inmates should be barred from voting at all, the bungled letters were especially galling to black leaders. "It is just another kind of racial profiling," raged Adore Obi Nwezi, the president of the Florida chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP.

As many as 16 per cent of the letters, sent out by county elections officials, went to people with no criminal record, "not even a parking ticket," Ms Nwezi said. "It's the most asinine thing I've ever heard. If that's not another clear example of institutionalised racism I don't know what is."

Studies offer varying figures on just how many voting-age black men in Florida are denied the chance to vote. A study by Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing Project puts the figure at 31 per cent. The lawsuit filed last year suggests it is closer to 24 per cent. Either way, it is an enormous part of Florida's population, of which 15 per cent is black.

While naming eight plaintiffs, the September filing is a class action lawsuit on behalf of an estimated 525,000 Florida citizens who are disenfranchised because they are categorised as "felons". Of those, 170,000 are black. The suit was brought against Governor Jeb Bush and his Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, a Washington group that fights civil rights cases.

The suit recounts how provisions barring felons from voting were inserted in Florida's 1968 constitution precisely to circumscribe the political power of blacks, then freed slaves. "We contend that there was a deliberate intent to disenfranchise black voters and that it still has that effect now," said Edward Still of the lawyers' committee.

"In Florida, they continue to argue that even people who have paid their debt to society by serving their time and completing probation and who are now supposed to be good members of society should not be allowed to do one thing that is the hallmark of citizenship in a democratic society, which is to vote."

That was certainly the view of Ron Ragins, a black man who can usually be found working at Styles Are Us, a hair salon on a busy commercial boulevard in Hollywood, just north of Miami.

He was imprisoned for two and a half years in 1991 for his part in an embezzlement scam at a Hollywood post office where he used to work.

When Mr Ragins was released, he did something few ex-convicts attempt - he took advantage of provisions that allow them to regain their voting rights by requesting a pardon from the state Clemency Board. It took a long time, and involved interminable paper work, but eventually he prevailed.

"I felt that I had paid my debt and done my time and I didn't feel whole without having the right to vote," he said last week, taking a pause between customers. "I wanted to vote again because I know how important it is. I was 13 when Martin Luther King was assassinated and I saw what happened during that time."

Although the procedures for getting back the right to vote have been simplified since Mr Ragins applied, it is still too daunting for most Floridians leaving prison. In 1998, for instance, pardons were granted in this way to only 1,400 people, of all races, across the state.

Mr Ragins, 45, is justifiably proud that on election day he was able to vote in spite of his past. Who did he vote for? With hair waiting to be cut, he did not say. But we can guess.