Jewish World Review Nov. 13, 2000 / 15 Mar-Cheshvan 5761
Never mind the nearly 100,000 Naderites in Florida who didn't much care if they threw the election to George Bush. Forget the elderly Jews reportedly aghast to discover that they mistakenly voted for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore.
Has anyone noticed that the Vice President could easily have won Florida with the help of a burgeoning, yet still untapped, Democratic constituency? Five hundred twenty-five thousand strong in the sunshine state, all that kept them from the voting booth were convictions for rape, murder, armed robbery, and other faux pas. Florida, like the District of Columbia and 46 other states, disenfranchises convicted felons --- practice which pre-dates the country's founding.
Over the last few years, the civil rights movement and left-wing advocacy groups have derided criminal disenfranchisement as racially odious, a modern-day poll tax. Courts take the argument quite seriously. But state legislators, including Florida Republicans, have given little ground --- at least until now. Marc Stern, a voting rights expert at the American Jewish Congress, speculates that the close election in Florida is likely to embolden the reform movement. Republicans who continue to oppose reform would appear particularly partisan-and worse. Liberals can now cite Florida to illustrate the horrific consequences of denying the vote to criminal offenders. Previously, their case was somewhat abstract.
This past election day, an estimated 4 million Americans, including 1.4 million black men, were ineligible to vote because of felony convictions. Everywhere from Florida to Washington state, felon disenfranchisement faces challenges in Congress, state legislatures and federal courts. Last month, a federal judge in Spokane heard arguments against Washington state's disenfranchisement law. On September 22, civil rights groups asked a federal court to overturn the disenfranchisement law in Florida, where some 31 percent of all black men are ineligible to vote because of criminal records. The lawsuit -- like others nationwide -- claims that felon disenfranchisement dilutes overall minority voting in violation of the landmark Voting Rights Act.
The Brennan Center claims the lawsuit it filed in Florida lawsuit is "about democracy, not crime." Democracy, indeed. At the height of the Reagan era, the GOP laid the groundwork for just the kind of lawsuits that may soon swell Democratic voting rolls. In 1982, Congress, with overwhelming GOP support, made it much easier for plaintiffs to win lawsuits filed under the Voting Rights Act. The landmark legislation was amended to expressly declare that even laws without "discriminatory purpose" could violate the act if they diluted overall minority voting strength. A decade later, civic-minded cons and civil rights lawyers made good use of the amended legislation. Without bothering to prove or allege discriminatory intent, everywhere from New York to Washington state, lawyers sued under the Voting Rights Act to invalidate laws that disenfranchised imprisone! d felons and ex-offenders. The Florida case is a bit more modest. It was filed only on behalf of the 525,000 ex-felons who can't vote. The lawsuit claims the law is discriminatory in impact and intent.
Nearly 650,000 Floridians can't vote because of criminal records, but only those out of jail would benefit from the lawsuit. Florida allows offenders who have completed their sentence to seek restoration of voting privileges if they have no more than $1,000 in outstanding fines. But liberals liken that provision to a "poll tax" because ex-jail birds have obvious financial travails. In view of such arguments, no wonder the Florida state legislature has adamantly refused to liberalize the law.
Expect more lawsuits whenever legislatures rebuff the reform movement. Turning to the courts to circumvent the populace, and arguably the Constitution, is a strategy not unknown among civil rights activists and other liberals. Just ask Al Gore. His henchman seem to consider courts their last best hope to engineer a victory in the Sunshine state-and lay the groundwork for capturing the White House.
No matter the final outcome, however, the close Florida vote should provide the civil rights movement, some powerful ammunition. "It allows us to make the case yet again in present terms," NAACP Washington director Hilary Shelton tells The American Spectator. "The problem hasn't changed."
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