In the midst of all the other craziness going on daily in our political lives, there remains a struggle to insure that African Americans have the right to exercise their option to vote and to run for office.
The basic U.S. Constitution does not speak on citizen voting rights. It was only really addressed directly and definitively by the 15th amendment in 1870 (almost a full century after the U.S. Constitution was ratified and operationalized). That amendment, written specifically for freedmen, said, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
It did not say shall not be abridged on account of gender, thus women in the U.S.A. did not gain the right to vote until the 19th amendment in 1920. As an aside, there are still many former and current congressmen who would prefer to repeal that amendment, so a very strong showing by women and their supporters in the next wave of elections seems like an urgency.
As most of us know well, however, the letter of the law does not always determine the practice of the law. Thus, since states and the federal government both have major influence on voting rights and the exercise thereof in this country, African Americans , in particular, have had to engage in a consistent struggle to exercise their voting rights. Actually, that’s what the Voting Rights Act of 1965 accomplished—providing enforcement authority for the exercise of the right to vote. That the U.S. Supreme Court during the Obama years essentially gutted a large portion of that Voting Rights Act (particularly the Pre-Clearance section), and Paul Ryan’s Republican-led House of Representatives has refused to bring to a vote the John Lewis-authored bill to revise the Voting Rights Act (which we citizens should be up in arms about), voting rights for Black folks in this country are again under siege.
Part of that fight is being waged in states in connection with the issue of felons who’ve completed their sentences having their voting rights returned. The individual states control most voting in this country, and only two of those states (Vermont and Maine) allow those incarcerated for felonies to retain their voting rights in spite of imprisonment. Another 27 states, including Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, allow the automatic renewal of one’s voting rights (and the rights to run for office) immediately after the completion of one’s prison sentence (excluding parole and probation).
Florida is one of 12 remaining states that only allow the return of one’s right to vote after a substantial waiting period and the approval of state officials. It is interesting to note that those states, including Florida, are the main states that continue to do legal battle to deny voting rights to African Americans through some device or another.To date, over 15,000 former inmates in Florida (many of whom are Black) are awaiting such procedures to be completed. Meanwhile, a federal judge in the state just issued a ruling saying that the Florida process is unconstitutional and must be revised immediately.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said, ““Florida strips the right to vote from every man and woman who commits a felony. To vote again, disenfranchised citizens must kowtow before a panel of high-level government officials over which Florida’s governor has absolute veto authority. No standards guide the panel. Its members alone must be satisfied that these citizens deserve restoration. The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not.”
The judge gave Florida until the end of February, 2018 to change that process. Maybe some good is actually being done beneath the loud circus tent of the Trump administration, after all.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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