AMERICAN BEACH, Fla.—Updated: This article was updated at 2:35 p.m. to include a statement from the Florida governor’s office.
The first time the Florida poet Devin Coleman voted was also his last.
It was 2000, Gore v. Bush – when his was among millions of votes in play as the US Supreme Court called the winner and set the eventual arc of American affairs.
Not long thereafter, Mr. Coleman was involved in a fight at a house party. His arrest led to eventual burglary charges, a prison sentence, and the revocation of his right to vote.
Nearly two decades later, Coleman, now 39, is a father, published author, public speaker, and college graduate. But he says his disenfranchisement has shaded those successes.
“Everything in my life has been affected by my conviction – even after I paid my debt,” says the author of “Prisoner to Poet: Thoughts of an incarcerated soul.” “At this point, [reclaiming my full citizenship] has become a life’s journey for redemption.”
Perhaps aiding in that quest, Federal District Court Judge Mark Walker ruled Feb. 1 that 1.5 million Floridians’ right to vote has been affected by a “scheme” to bend the people’s collective will to political whim.
The judge found that the vote restoration process in Florida – executed by a Republican-led clemency board headed by Gov. Rick Scott – used arbitrary means to decide who is worthy. The state has until Feb. 12 to come up with remedies to the current constitutional violations.
Rebuked for violating the First and 14th Amendments to the US Constitution, Mr. Scott joins other Republican state politicians facing legal blowback from measures that courts have ruled discriminate, whether by effect or intent – or both – against black Americans.
Most immediately, the ruling could force Florida to immediately fix a massive backlog of re-enfranchisement cases ahead of the November election, potentially impacting races – including Scott’s potential Senate run. But more broadly, the verdict against Florida’s system, civil rights experts say, could train the nation’s eyes on the deeper impacts of voting rights on political outcomes.
“We are in a new moment,” says Bryan Sells, a civil rights lawyer in Atlanta. “We are [as a country] reevaluating the value of the right to vote and of unrigged systems. It’s not because the system was less rigged before. People are just caring about it more in the last five years.”
Advocates for restoring voting rights increasingly see it, he says, as a moral focus on the meaning of citizenship.
In fact, earlier this year, nearly a million Floridians signed a winning petition to have automatic vote restoration for felons (save for murderers and rapists) added to the state constitution. Sixty percent of voters would need to OK it in November for it to become law. A 2014 national poll showed 65 percent of Americans in favor of automatic vote restoration.
But passing the amendment may be an uphill battle in the Sunshine State, where law and order command a heavy respect.
“[Felon disenfranchisement] is understood as an issue of law and order and in Florida that’s the end of the discussion,” says Scott Paine, a political analyst for the Florida League of Cities in Tampa. “It is not seen in other terms, no matter the merits of other arguments. At the same time, this may be less about the state as a whole than about a particular administration’s perspective.”
Governor’s personal involvement
The practice of withholding voting rights from people convicted of felonies has a legal basis. The 14th Amendment balances equal rights with the right of government to bar the franchise from Americans convicted of “rebellion and crime.” There is one vital caveat, which is at the heart of Walker’s ruling: It is illegal to withhold rights based on race or viewpoint. The state argues that Florida’s system is in place to ensure that only “responsible” people vote.
In an investigative look at Florida’s vote restoration backlog, the Tampa Bay Times noted last summer that Scott “often shows a softer, more human side as he intently poses personal questions” like “Do you still drink? … Are you married?” or to a child, “Is he a good dad?” But unless those answers personally satisfy Scott, the applicant’s vote restoration is denied.
Such personal involvement by a governor into a citizen’s voting rights also bucks trends. Since Coleman’s first and only presidential vote in 2000, 20 states have eased re-enfranchisement restrictions, with many automatically returning the franchise to those who have completed the terms of their punishment. Today, only Florida, Kentucky, and Iowa use clemency boards to determine eligibility.
Florida – a key swing state – stands out.
After winning the election in 2010, Scott, along with three other Republicans on the clemency board, made the re-enfranchisement process more onerous. The board granted about 154,000 clemencies in four years of former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist’s tenure, but that number plummeted to less than 3,000 in seven years under Scott.
“The discretion of the clemency board over the restoration of felons’ rights in Florida has been in place for decades and overseen by multiple governors. The process is outlined in Florida’s Constitution, and today’s ruling departs from precedent set by the United States Supreme Court,” says John Tupps, communications director for the governor, in a statement provided to the Monitor. “The governor believes that convicted felons should show that they can lead a life free of crime and be accountable to their victims and our communities. While we are reviewing [the] ruling, we will continue to defend this process in the court.”
For his part, Judge Walker saw the scheme as part of a broader trend where partisans emboldened in part by the rollback of federal voting protections by the Supreme Court have attempted to use voter ID and gerrymandering to secure permanent electoral footholds.
According to the ruling, Scott noted that the clemency board “can do whatever we want.” That included returning the right to vote to a white Floridian who admitted he voted (illegally) for Scott. Meanwhile, four of five people turned down for similar circumstances were black. One out of 10 Floridians have had their voting rights revoked; for black residents, the ratio is one out of five.
In one case Walker cited, a 54-year-old was told he would have to wait 50 years before reapplying to have his voting rights restored.
Nationally, one out of 13 black Americans can’t vote because of felon disenfranchisement, a practice that started in the South during Reconstruction to suppress the emerging freedman’s vote. About 4.7 million Americans can’t vote because of their criminal record, 1.7 million of whom live in the Sunshine State.
To be sure, the moral issue of whether felons should receive their voting rights back after serving their sentences has been what some have called a “silent civil rights struggle.” But the disproportionate impact of voting rules on black people writ large is drawing new attention to the problem, including from some Republicans, including former President George W. Bush – whose own 2000 election may have gone differently if so many Floridians had not been disenfranchised.
In the past two years, courts have ruled that Texas, North Carolina, and Ohio engaged in racial gerrymandering in an effort to disenfranchise black voters, a violation of the Voting Rights Act.
“This court is not blind to nationwide trends in which the spigot to access the United States’ most ‘precious’ and ‘fundamental’ right, the right to vote, depends on who controls the levers of power,” Judge Walker wrote in his 43-page order. “That spigot is turned on or off depending on whether politicians perceive they will benefit from the expansion or contraction of the electorate.”
Legacy of Florida’s past
Snuggled up to “NaNa,” one of Florida’s most towering beach dunes, lies the historic African-American community of American Beach, on Amelia Island.
Doug Reid is one of the several hundred residents of the town established by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida’s first black millionaire and founder of “The Afro” insurance company in 1935, during the Jim Crow era. It was a beachside community for African-Americans, who were not legally allowed to go swimming at many other beaches along Florida’s thousands of miles of coastline.
Mr. Reid sees a link between the state’s past history of racism and its restrictive approach to restoring voting rights after a sentence is completed.
“You still get a little bit of the Confederacy going on down here,” he says, pointing to a rise in white nationalism. He notes, however, that he personally has not felt discriminated against in Florida. And he does not know anyone who has had their voting rights revoked.
Some government observers also point out the simultaneous rise in polarized nationalism and efforts to suppress minority votes. “The  election showed me that among white Americans, if Jim Crow were on the ballot, he’d win,” says Steven Taylor, an expert on the intersection of race and politics at American University, in Washington, D.C. “On issues of intense polarization, blacks are [right to feel they are] going to be on the losing side.”
Former US Marine Ryan Conover, who works as a fishmonger on Amelia Island, says most people don’t understand their rights as well as they should.
He also knows that Floridians may well be less sympathetic to criminals, especially hardened ones.
But as someone who has defended American freedoms, Mr. Conover, who is white, says he is concerned about the psychological and social costs of denying the right to vote to felons who have paid their dues. His view is supported by studies that show that vote restoration leads to less recidivism.
“The vote is critical to a sense of citizenship, especially when you are trying to rebuild your life,” says Conover. “Not being able to vote means that you have no say in what goes on in your community.”