Democracy in Chains

Slavery’s Legacy Shackled the Black Vote—And Cost Gore Thousands of Ballots


Though black people in the South were nearly unanimous in support for Gore, their votes were scattered across state lines and thus submerged through the electoral college as completely as if they'd never been cast.


Garvey's idea may sound revolutionary, but the courts have consistently ruled that without predominantly black districts, African Americans lack a fair chance at representation. When necessary, judges have redrawn electoral maps or scuttled at-large systems to ensure minorities have at least one seat.

Yet when it comes to electing a president, the Constitution mandates statewide contests and makes no provision for minority votes—whether from third-party backers or African Americans. As a result, white voters can easily overwhelm black ones, making places like Mississippi and Alabama near locks for Republican candidates, who then have little reason to consider minority concerns.

Given the roots of the electoral college, this comes as no surprise. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, none other than James Madison of Virginia objected to the direct election of presidents, on the grounds that it would put Southern states—with their large population of slaves—at an insurmountable disadvantage. Madison advocated a system in which states would receive a number of electors based on the size of the general population, franchised or not. That tilted the table in favor of white Southerners, whose votes carried more weight.

Today the electoral college, however inadvertently, continues to hold back African Americans, who even in relatively black states like Florida form only 15 percent of the population. Though black people in the South were nearly unanimous in support for Gore, their votes were scattered across state lines and thus submerged through the electoral college as completely as if they'd never been cast.


Plenty of African Americans get no protection from the Voting Rights Act at all. About 4 million U.S. citizens, most of them minorities, are denied the right to vote because their states disenfranchise convicted felons. A report by the Sentencing Project two years ago predicts that one quarter of all black men in seven states will soon be disenfranchised. In 13 states, this disenfranchisement is permanent, applying alike to those in jail, on parole, or free. According to the NYU School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice, which has sued to overturn the felon statutes, such bans are a direct outgrowth of the antebellum South. "When Alabama adopted such a law in 1901," the Center said in a report, "John Knox, the politician presiding over the Constitutional Convention, stated that the aim of such provisions was to help preserve white supremacy without directly challenging the Constitution of the United States."


Schools were segregated, with Florida outdoing all the other former members of the Confederacy by not only making sure white and black pupils used different sets of books, but ensuring that the books were stored separately.


Today many prisoners of color are in jail because of the war on drugs, which has led to a quadrupling of the prison population since 1980, to nearly 2 million. Laws passed during this government assault have hammered away at black and Latino communities, calling for stiffer sentences for substances like crack cocaine, preferred by minorities, while remaining lenient on the powder preferred by whites. And though lots of these felons fit the demographics that vote Democratic, it was the Democratic Clinton administration that put its weight behind the effort to build more prisons to house more drug offenders.

In addition to routing former felons from the polling place, the laws can be used to intimidate and harass minority communities. A few months ago, nearly 12,000 Floridians were informed by the state Division of Elections that they had lost their voting rights because of felony convictions in other states, according to a report in Mother Jones. But the company hired by the state to compile that list of names made a massive mistake and misidentified thousands of people. When the error was fixed, 8000 people were once again made eligible, but not before they'd been made to fear the loss of federally guaranteed voting rights.


About the time of the Civil War, the New York Herald Tribunereferred to Florida as the "smallest tadpole in the dirty pool of secession." Which in no way made it any less a part of the Deep South. Like all the other Southern states, Florida killed itself after the war trying to substitute a somewhat more subtle form of slavery for the real thing. Black Codes, aimed at maintaining white supremacy through segregation, prevented whites and blacks from riding in the same railroad cars. Schools were segregated, with Florida outdoing all the other former members of the Confederacy by not only making sure white and black pupils used different sets of books, but ensuring that the books were stored separately. Poll taxes and the introduction of divisive primaries decimated the black vote.

With the toppling of segregation in the 1950s, white citizen councils sprang up to do openly what the robed Ku Klux Klan had done at night. The memory of the 1923 massacre at Rosewood was still fresh when Florida governor Leroy Collins in 1956 declared, "We are just as determined as any Southern state to maintain segregation."

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