In March 1962, after a year of deliberations, the US Supreme Court ruled on Baker v Carr, one of the most complex and divisive cases in the court’s history. The agonising weight of the decision, which forced the court to determine whether or not to intervene in how states run their elections, was such that it drove Associate Justice Charles Evans Whittaker to a nervous breakdown, causing him to recuse himself and never return to the court.
The ruling came down on the side of the plaintiff, and radically changed precedent, arguing that courts could indeed interfere in redistricting – the process of deciding the boundaries for electoral and political districts – because the way districts are laid out can reduce or even negate the value of a vote, encroaching on the 14th amendment right to equal protection.
Today, the “one person, one vote” mantra successfully invoked in Baker (and, two years later, in another landmark voters’ rights case Reynolds v Sims) is in danger of being irrevocably destroyed from a number of directions.
In Georgia, secretary of state Brian Kemp is facing voter suppression lawsuits after removing more than 100,000 people from the electoral register for not voting in previous elections, while his office has failed to approve 53,000 registrations primarily from African Americans – crucial given that Kemp is running for governor against Stacy Abrams, whose potential success will likely rely on black voter turnout in the midterms.
Donald Trump’s discredited claim of “widespread voter fraud” has encouraged support for ever increasing voter ID laws, the closure of polling stations and strict voter purges across the country, which are broadly understood to limit the access of people of colour, Native American voters and lower income communities – many of whom traditionally vote Democrat. Brazen voter suppression is becoming so normalised and widespread that it makes discussions around gerrymandering seem quaint by comparison.
But perhaps the most important community of people who are being denied their vote exists in Florida – the swingiest of swing states in general elections. Next month, at the same time as voting for their governor, senator and House representatives, Florida voters will be asked to vote on another issue: whether to reverse the state law that prevents anyone convicted of a crime from ever voting again.
Florida – alongside Iowa and Kentucky – is one of only three states in the country which permanently removes the right to vote from anyone ever convicted of a felony. The “felon disenfranchisement” clause dates back to the state’s constitution – but it was the mass incarceration of the 1970s and 1980s that caused it to have real impact.
Between 1970 and 2014, Florida’s total population increased by approximately 193 per cent while its prison population increased by roughly 1,048 per cent. The state has one of the highest percentage of convicted felons anywhere in the US (more than 10 per cent), in part due to its low threshold – in Florida, theft becomes a felony from $200, while in Texas for example it has to exceed $2,500.
As a result, more than 1.5 million people in the state are disqualified from voting due to the rule. According to figures from The Sentencing Project, Florida alone accounts for 27 per cent of the US population disenfranchised by felony. By numbers, the majority of felons in Florida are white, but the rule is still racially disproportionate – almost one in four African Americans in the state are unable to vote; black people make up 16 per cent of the state’s population, yet 48 per cent of its prisoners.
Many of the people affected have served their sentences, repaid their debt to the community, and become valuable members of their society. Yet they are banned from having a say in how their country is run. Not only is this a gross violation of democratic rights, it’s also crucial in keeping Republicans in power.
Studies show that people convicted of a crime are more likely to vote Democrat. Florida – jointly with New York – is the state with the most representatives in the House (27 seats) after California and Texas. A majority in the House would allow Democrats to decide which bills come to the floor, making it harder for Donald Trump to pass domestic law; it would mean they could issue subpoenas and control committees, impacting investigations into Trump’s dealings with Russia and business practices; a two-thirds Democratic majority in the senate would give them the power to impeach not just the president, but also the vice-president and all civil officers, which includes Supreme Court justices such as Brett Kavanaugh.
Florida currently has a Democratic senator – Bill Nelson – but his seat is far from safe in his current race against Republican Governor Rick Scott. With a 49-51 split in the senate, losing one seat could spell disaster for the party, especially considering Florida’s second senator, Marco Rubio, is not up for re-election until 2020.
At state level, which way Florida voters swing could also have a huge impact on the future of the country. The next governor will hold the key to the state’s redistricting in 2022, something that will impact elections for a decade subsequently. The current districts were primarily drawn by Republicans, and it’s these lines which allowed Trump to win the election despite Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote.
With 29 electoral votes, Florida is considered a crucial state for any presidential candidate. The last time the state voted for a losing candidate was in 1992. In 2000 it famously secured George W Bush’s victory against Al Gore.
When Florida voters head to the polls on 6 November, they will arguably hold more power than any other state. By voting yes to Amendment Four, the voting rights restoration for felons, they will not just put America one step closer to achieving true democratic equality – they could also secure the future of the Democratic party at a time when it desperately needs it.
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