The Voting Rights Act and Florida: Historical challenges in light of the Supreme Court decision

Tuesday’s ill-advised and unfortunate Supreme Court decision regarding the voting rights act recalls the shameful specter of potential voter purges and racially motivated disenfranchisement that characterized Florida and the American South prior to 1965. While much of the caricature of the south during that era has been drawn in hindsight by a guilty northern-dominated press who for years simply accepted de jure segregation at a time when northern states were implementing de facto segregation, Florida does have a shameful history regarding race relations.

In anticipation of this ruling this month on Throwback Tuesday, we’ve run a few important features. On June 11th we ran a piece with video of Florida Governor Farris Bryant testifying before Congress against the Civil Rights Act pushed by President Johnson. The previous week we ran the votes in Congress of Florida’s Democratic Congressional delegation on both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As Charlie Crist prepares to run for governor, he can point to his strong action in re-opening the 1951 case of the murder of NAACP leader Harry T. Moore in Mims. This case, as we discussed in April, was brushed under the rug by the state’s leadership and Democratic Party at the time, despite the FBI’s interest in the case.

Florida has a sad racial history. But politicians in both parties had certainly made a strong effort between 1970 and 2009 to make Florida a model for the rest of the nation. However, recent voter purges that disproportionately impact minority voters protected under the Voting Rights Act have been pushed by Florida Republicans, which is disappointing considering that the RPOF, unlike its counterparts in neighboring states, did not overtly use race in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s to win disaffected southern Democrats over to its side. The RPOF’s responsible action regarding race in that period also explains why Florida did not realign as quickly as many political observers assumed it would after the tumult of the 1960s. In fact, between 1968 and 1984 the Republicans actually lost state legislative seats while they were winning national elections regularly in the state employing the racially cynical “Southern Strategy” that the RNC, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan perfected.

The vast majority of  Florida Republicans aren’t racists. In fact, I believe there are as many (if not more) registered Democratic racists as Republican racists in Florida. However, neighboring southern states paint a different picture and a potential model for Florida Republicans if they choose to take advantage of this court ruling and implement modern versions of poll taxes, black codes and Jim Crow. What has become apparent is that the national Republican Party post-2010 is returning to race baiting much as they did in the 1970s and 1980s. During that period cynical Republican campaigns focused on converting historic Democrats in the southern states to the GOP and scaring suburbanites who aligned with the Democrats on most issues. These strategies were best discussed in a book I have read over and over again, Chain Reaction. Bill Clinton read this book carefully in 1992, and changed the tenor of the debate at the same time as many in the GOP were beginning to recognize the damage this cynical campaign strategy was doing to the GOP’s image among younger voters.

Recent Republican campaigns led by George W. Bush and Jeb Bush here in Florida were notable for their attempts to reach out to minorities while completely rejecting overt and subtle racism. George W. Bush despite all his others faults was probably the most race and ethnic neutral Republican in the White House since Warren Harding. This is noteworthy given that adopted Texan George H.W. Bush ran a campaign for US Senate in 1964 against liberal icon Ralph Yarborough using overtly racial rhetoric and attacking the Senator for his support of Civil Rights. Then Bush was on the ticket in 1980 when Ronald Reagan kicked off his General Election campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi where just 15 years earlier two young Jewish students from New York and one local African-American had been murdered when trying to register blacks to vote. The murders were covered up by local authorities in league with the Ku Klux Klan.

The investigation by the FBI was dramatized in the 1988 film Mississippi Burning. The result was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which Rick Scott seems to not want to honor but that is a topic for another time. In 1988, Bush benefited from arguably the most blatantly racist national campaign since George Wallace sought the White House. What it accomplished was temporarily holding off an emerging Democratic electoral vote coalition which likely would have begun to emerge in 1988 had it not been for Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes’ infamous Willie Horton, and other “crime” and “welfare” ads. The goal of the racist rhetoric was almost always aimed at Democrats whose crossover votes the GOP needed to win local, state and Federal elections.

In other words the generational shift in the Bush family has seen a transformation from race-baiting to inclusiveness. “Compassionate Conservatism” was more than just a tag line for Jeb and George W. Bush. They showed in many ways they believed in it. That also kept Florida Republicans, overly influenced by Jeb Bush for years on the straight and narrow regarding race. Charlie Crist, then a Republican was notable for his strong support of Civil Rights efforts including the reopening of the aforementioned Moore case.

John McCain rejected the instincts of many of his advisers and surrogates in 2008 continuing the pattern of Republican leaders taking the high road. This came despite McCain’s own record on Civil Rights including his vote against the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday in 1983, when he likely was just reflecting the viewpoint of his conservative constituents. McCain showed a desire to run a post racial campaign and recognized the national interest in not using code to describe his black opponent. But Mitt Romney’s campaign felt no such obligation and here in Florida, where race still plays a role in elections, particularly among Democrats (yes, more Democrats that vote based on race I believe in Florida than Republicans) Romney was able to win the votes of many Democrats who had voted for Alex Sink two years earlier by appealing to the cynicism of many north Florida voters.

Florida’s Republican have an opportunity to return to the race based politics of the Democrats perfected in this state prior to the 1960s. They can push further voter purges and other restrictions on the voting rights of African-Americans.

We can certainly hope Florida Republicans are responsible in how they handle today’s decision. Officials in the five former Voting Rights Act pre-cleareance counties that now can do virtually anything they want to in order to restrict voting. One of those counties, Hillsborough has been a decisive factor in the last two Presidential elections.

Anger about today’s decision should galvanize progressives into holding the legislature and country supervisors of elections accountable for any move they make to restrict voting rights. We must remain vigilant and this site will closely monitor all developments related to race-baiting and voting restrictions pushed by Florida politicians in light of Tuesday’s decision.

6 comments

  1. Doug Head · · Reply

    Two thirds of the Democrats in Orange County are minorities. 80% of the Republicans are White. We have a problem with race in Florida. And it has historic roots in the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s and the economic rights movement of Roosevelt. In 1964, in Orlando, there were 5000 registered Black Democrats and 500 registered Black Republicans. Today, there are 96,000 Black Democrats and 4,000 Black Republicans. The ratio has not changed hardly at all. But White voters in Orlando were 4 to 1 Democratic in 1964. Today there are 60% more White Republicans than Democrats. I believe that this is pure evidence of the impact of the “Southern Strategy” of Goldwater, which got him the nomination and the votes of most southern states. Johnson carried Florida, but not Orange or most of the State’s Counties. He got big margins in Tampa/St. Pete and in Miami and in Volusia/Brevard. Which carried the state, but his margin was slim and Nixon was onto the Goldwater strategy immediately. There were Republicans like George Romney who marched in civil rights demonstrations fifty years ago. Republicans in the House can’t even vote for immigration reform today. Sad.

  2. Excellent political history of race and the legacy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Florida. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to St. Augustine in 1964 and led marches every night suffering attacks from white supremacists.

  3. floridian · · Reply

    The Dems need to use this ruling to their advantage to drive up minority voting in 2014. Combine this ruling with the veto of the FL Dream Act by Rick Scott and it could send huge numbers of minorities to the polls in urban areas.

  4. Blue Dog Dem · · Reply

    How can you assume Democrats who voted for Sink but not Obama are racists? That in itself is racist to imply. Sink was a real moderate whereas Obama has pushed social issue and fiscal issue views more befitting of communist china than the USA. That having been said, Obama is very good on foreign policy resisting the push by many within his party to repeat the mistakes of W’s tenure in the Middle East.

    1. Many in rural North Florida voted for Sink but not Obama but also voted for Kerry, a more liberal nominee than Obama and Dukakis. Several of these counties went down the line Democratic in the 2002 statewide elections and then performed better for white D statewide candidates in 2010 who got less than 40% of the vote statewide than for Obama in 08 or 12. Now consider Obama won Florida both times he ran and every other race I am referencing was lost by a Democrat statewide. What other conclusion would you draw?

    2. Also some precincts in Palm Beach and Broward counties where Sink ran ahead of Obama were alarming. I did not see this in the rest of the state.

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