Florida Man Strikes Again!

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, a Republican, in an attempt to become the new face of “Florida Man” launches crazy attempt to prevent felons from voting.

By now most of the nation is familiar with the “Florida Man” meme. The meme highlights strange and unusual behavior by Florida residents (man or woman) whose actions create entertaining but head scratching articles and videos on social media sites such as Youtube. Florida republicans are trying to lay claim to the “Florida Man” meme by continuing to find bizarre ways to suppress Democratic party votes. Florida’s Republican Attorney General, Ashley Moody, has sent a letter to the FBI and the state Department of Law Enforcement asking them to investigate Mike Bloomberg’s recent efforts to help pay off fines for Florida felons. If this sounds like an attempt at voter suppression that’s because it is. But perhaps a little background is necessary to understand the madness in Florida.

Although blacks in Florida had a long history of living through racial discrimination, that discrimination took a new twist when President Nixon began his War on Drugs in 1971. The War on Drugs quickly became a war on the black community. Nixon’s chief domestic advisor, John Ehrlichmann, in an interview with Dan Baum in 1994 stated:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

From the beginning of the War on Drugs until the present day, Blacks in Florida as well as the other states, have been disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses. But the high incarceration rates are not limited to just drug crimes. Studies have found that Black people are more likely to be stopped by the police, detained pretrial, charged with more serious crimes, and sentenced more harshly than white people — even when controlling for things like offense severity. In Florida, Black people are 17% of the state’s population but account for 47% of the people in prison. Florida’s prison admissions puts it at sixth highest in the country. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics Prisoners in 2015 research Black males (1,072 prisoners per 100,000 black male residents ages 18 to 19) were more than 10 times more likely to be in state or federal prison than whites (102 per 100,000).

The high incarceration rates for minority communities is tied to voting because many states have had, or currently still do, prohibitions against felons voting. The ability of felons to have their voting rights restored vary from state to state, where some felons have the right to vote reinstated upon release while in other states voting rights are restored after a period of time while on probation/parole or through a governor’s pardon.

Over the past few decades there has been a movement to restore voting rights to ex-felons. This movement made its way to Florida in 2018 when Florida voters voted in favor of restoring voting rights to felons through a ballot initiative. Florida Republicans quickly realized that most of these new voters were going to be voting for the Democratic party, so the following year the Florida legislature passed, and the governor signed, a law stating felons can’t register to vote until they’ve paid all fines and fees related to their sentence. This appears to be an end around the 24th Amendment which banned poll taxes. Earlier this month the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs did not prove a violation of the U.S. Constitution and reinstated the mandate for felons to pay fines and fees before they could vote. The case will eventually make its way to the Supreme Court but there will be no ruling before the November presidential election.

In response to the Appeals Court ruling, groups and individuals have attempted to establish funds where people can donate money to help pay off the fees and fines so that felons can vote before November. Wealthy people such as Michael Bloomberg, recently raised $16 million for such a fund. Desmond Meade, the head of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition said that it costs on average $1,000 per person to pay off fees and fines and that so for they have helped over 4,000 people regain their right to vote.

In response to the fundraising, Florida’s Attorney General Ashley Moody is now asking the FBI to investigate to see if such fund raising efforts violate Florida law. Which law is being violated has not been made clear. The Attorney General’s efforts to prevent money raised to be used to pay fees and fines makes clear that the Republican politicians who passed the 2019 law were not interested in financial restitution. They were engaged in a blatant and targeted attempt at voter suppression. As the information above demonstrates, minority ex-felons were the target.

But why pass legislation whose impact will fall most heavily on Black and Hispanic felons? Because of which political party those groups vote for. In the past five presidential elections, between 90 and 95% of the Black vote has gone to the Democratic candidate. In the 2018 midterm elections the Hispanic community was a little further behind at 70%. This means the vast majority of new felon voters will be voting for Democratic candidates. This reality is not lost on top Republican strategists.

Because Americans live in a highly segregated society, it becomes easy to engage in voter suppression. Removing voting machines in minority precincts, not counting provisional ballots, instituting voter id requirements, passing legislation with restrictions on early voting, absentee voting laws, and voter registration campaign restrictions are all attempts by top Republican operatives to make voting in elections, a bedrock foundation for a democracy, more difficult to do. Just as minority communities were targeted in the War on Drugs and sent to prison, on their way out of prison they are once again being targeted for voter suppression. The shadow of white supremacy gets minorities into the prison door, and then prevents them from full assimilation back into society when their incarceration is over.

Attorney General Moody may have a fleeting claim to being the newest example of “Florida Man”. Former governor, and now current senator of Florida Rick Scott, has just introduced a bill to limit the time to count votes to 48 hours after the election- an act which would have the potential of nullifying millions of absentee votes. In true “Florida Man” fashion, he has named the bill the “Help America Vote Act of 2020”.

In 2020, the surreal has become the real.

Retired social science teacher and avid reader. Trying to find a place for justice and compassion in society. Twitter: @GHoffarth

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