In 1868, Florida’s white elites faced a threat every bit as grave as the Civil War that had ended in Confederate defeat three years earlier. Congress had just forced Florida to rewrite its constitution to allow every man the right to vote. But adding thousands of newly eligible black residents to the rolls would abruptly make whites a voting minority.
The old guard’s only hope was to somehow ban black voters without violating Reconstruction acts passed by Congress after the Civil War. Huddled in Tallahassee backrooms throughout that cool January, they found just the ticket: a lifetime voting ban on anyone with a felony conviction. Combined with postwar laws that made it comically easy to saddle black residents with criminal records, legislators knew they could suppress black votes indefinitely.
Or at least for a century and a half. On Tuesday, Florida voted to end that 150-year-old ban by backing Amendment 4, which will return voting rights to more than 1 million Floridians who have served their sentences. The amendment garnered 64 percent of the vote.
Historians say the vote also ends a law with roots so blatantly racist that one state leader later boasted that the postwar constitution would prevent Florida from becoming taken over by blacks, using a racial slur to describe them. ‘‘Their intent was quite clear: to eliminate as many black voters as possible,’’ said Darryl Paulson, an emeritus professor of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
The ban was remarkably effective at doing so, even 150 years later. As of 2016, more than 1 in 5 black Floridians couldn’t vote thanks to the rule, according to an analysis by the Sentencing Project.
‘‘We can’t have a democracy with permanent second-class citizens,’’ Howard Simon, the American Civil Liberty Union’s Florida executive director, told the Miami Herald.
The origins of Florida’s ban trace back to the days just after Robert E. Lee’s surrender. As southern states like Florida rejoined the Union, many tried to explicitly ban black voters. Even as Congress forced southern states’ hand with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which freed slaves and gave them citizenship and the right to vote, Florida legislators laid the groundwork to disenfranchise those black residents. In 1865, the state passed a package of laws known as the ‘‘Black Codes’’ that upped the penalties for charges easy to pin on freed blacks, including assaulting a white woman, disobedience, and ‘‘vagrancy,’’ a crime with such a broad definition nearly anyone could be charged. That was the perfect precursor to the 1868 voting ban on felons.
The law was just one the state adopted to keep African Americans away from the polls, efforts that were astoundingly effective.