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Supreme Court stabs another GOP knife into US democracy by upholding ex-felon vote ban

By Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman
Nov 16, 2005

from Online Journal

With nary a peep from the mainstream media, the US Supreme Court has stabbed yet another partisan knife into the American electoral system.

This time the court has let stand Florida's infamous 137-year-old ban on voting rights for ex-felons. It was this same Jim Crow ban that the GOP used to disenfranchise thousands of Floridians in 2000, providing the margin by which George W. Bush took the presidency. The ruling continues to take the vote from millions of African-Americans and non-violent offenders��and, in practice, others who have broken no laws at all. It is highly likely to strengthen the lock of the Republican Party and its future candidates on the US presidency.

In Florida 2000, Republican Governor Jeb Bush used the ban as a pretext for disenfranchising tens of thousands of mostly black voters who committed no crime at all, but whose names allegedly resembled those who did. In the lead-up to his brother's test at the polls, Bush hired a Republican computer firm to compile a dubious list which Bush then used to deprive perhaps 120,000 Floridians, perhaps more, of their right to vote.

It has since been shown that thousands of those who lost their vote had never been convicted of anything. According to the Sentencing Project, the number of alleged Florida ex-felons effectively deprived of their right to vote in 2000 may have been as high as 600,000, roughly a thousand times as many as allegedly gave George W. Bush his margin of victory.

Ohio's laws encompass no ban on ex-felon voting rights. But Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell also served as the state co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign. As chief administrator of Ohio's 2004 election, Blackwell allowed county Boards of Elections to send threatening letters to thousands of ex-felons or alleged ex-felons. Letters also went to many registered voters who had been convicted of no crime at all, helping give George W. Bush a second term.

Franklin County (Columbus) Board of Elections Director Matt Damschroder, former head of the county's GOP, admitted to the Free Press that in an average year he cancels 200-300 felons voting rights. But he said in the 2004 election he cancelled the rights of 3,500 alleged former felons to vote. Many of their convictions date back to 1998, and some who received letters had merely been indicted, and had never been convicted of any felony at all.

In 1870 the US adopted the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing all Americans the right to vote, regardless of race (but not gender). But white racist regimes in the former Confederacy quickly found ways to circumvent the amendment.

One such tool was the ex-felon ban. Along with poll taxes, the grandfather clause (disenfranchising anyone whose grandfather had been a slave), lynching and other violent intimidation, the attack on ex-felon voting rights was aimed directly at a black community that had started to gain political power in the South. Under the white supremacist Democratic Party and its terrorist adjunct, the Ku Klux Klan, blacks were subjected to unjust and often absurd prosecutions that stuck them with felony convictions. As the 20th century dawned, very significant percentages of the black male population thus lost their vote.

When Richard Nixon launched the "War on Drugs" in the 1970s, Florida and other states were given a modern pretext by which to further attack the black community. The attack escalated in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, with a nationwide wave of arrests that shredded much of the Constitution. By 2000, much of the black male population in many states had been convicted of non-violent crimes, mostly involving controlled substances.

Some 10 percent of the black population in Florida��possibly more��remains effectively disenfranchised. Since the black community now regularly votes 90 percent for Democratic candidates, this represents a huge and vital windfall for the GOP. Without it, Al Gore would have carried Florida 2000��and thus the presidency��by tens of thousands of votes, rather than allegedly losing it by several hundred.

Today only Florida, Kentucky and Virginia permanently deprive felons of their franchise once they have cleared parole. Ten other states restrict those rights in various ways. But especially in Florida, that ban remains a major key to Republican supremacy.

According to the Sentencing Project, some 4.7 million Americans��one in 43 adults��have currently or permanently lost their right to vote due to a felony conviction. The Project says some 1.4 million of those are African-American men, 13 percent of that group as a whole, more than seven times the national average. In Florida and other states where ex-felons are permanently or partially disenfranchised, fully 25 percent of the black male population cannot cast a ballot.

Among those legally challenging the ban has been Jau'dohn Hicks, a Florida firefighter and emergency medical technician freed from prison in 1991. Father of three daughters, Hicks says, "I work. I pay taxes. I'm raising my children��I want my voice back."

Based in part on the federal Voting Rights Act, Hicks's case was carried by the Brennan Center, the Florida Justice Center, the UNC School of Law Center for Civil Rights and others. It was supported by leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The European Court of Human Rights has pointedly opposed blanket disenfranchisement of any specific ethnic or racial group.

But the US Federal Court of Appeals of the Eleventh Circuit has upheld it. The US Supreme Court's refusal to hear this challenge now effectively leaves it intact.

The court's action is especially ironic in view of its 2000 Bush v. Gore decision, giving George W. Bush the presidency. That infamous 5-4 vote overruled the Florida Supreme Court and stopped a recount, sparing Bush "irreparable harm" under the 14th Amendment. The decision continues to astonish legal scholars worldwide, and on all sides of the American spectrum. At least two sitting justices��Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas��had clear conflicts of interest, but refused to recuse themselves. The five pro-Bush justices then warned that their partisan intrusion, trashing state jurisdiction, was a one-time decision, not to be used as precedent for future rulings.

But an historic legal reason for a decision like leaving Florida's felony ban intact would likely be the "states rights" constitutional barrier against federal intrusion into election procedures. The otherwise conservative justices trashed that tradition to give Bush the presidency in 2000. Now the court seems to be using it in a way that may help give it to his brother in 2008.

However the justices may explain all this, leaving in tact the ban on ex-felon voting rights continues the Jim Crow disenfranchisement of millions of African-Americans and others, the vast majority of whose crimes��if any��have been non-violent.

So without a peep from the mainstream media, the court now gouged yet another GOP wound into an American electoral system already reeling from partisan manipulation.

Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman are co-authors of How the GOP Stole America's Election & Is Rigging 2008, now available at and, and, with Steve Rosenfeld, of What Happened in Ohio, available in spring, 2006, from The New Press.

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