Florida's Bloody Election History Casts a Long Shadow over Voter Suppression Efforts

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Mr. Shepard is an adjunct professor of history at Valencia College located in Orlando, Florida.

This is a condensed and edited version of this article was posted on Counterpunch, July 15, 2011.

There’s voter suppression afoot in central Florida—and no one seems to care.

Republican Governor Rick Scott has proposed various changes to Florida election laws that make it more difficult for poor people, minorities, and students to vote.

Like so much of what passes for conversation in our country, the discussion of voting rights in not just Florida, but across the South and across the nation generally is scarred with drivel; a confusion of voter fraud, for which there is little evidence, or in some cases the misguided arguments about some presumed notion about voting in a discussion of “rights vs. privileges”.

Voting was a privilege in early America.  Only white men that owned property (slaves were property) could vote.  That changed during and after the Civil War.  Voting became a right.  With the passage of the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and the Nineteenth Amendments, voting became a right of every U.S. citizen born on U.S. soil, women included.

It was only after college students came into play in Florida’s last general election that they became a group whose voting rights had to be suppressed.  It remains to be seen if college students will participate in the same numbers as in the last general election.  Voters are no longer permitted to change their address at their voting stations; as anyone who has ever attended college knows, college students change their residence frequently.  So do poor people.

The Republican argument for these changes is voter fraud.  It is a specious argument for which there is no evidence.  Voter fraud in America at this point and time is simply a red herring.

The real frauds are the Tallahassee legislators and Rick Scott, who now are attempting to restrict the vote amongst poor people and students; the latter, old enough to die in war and old enough, after the 26th Amendment, to vote.  How ironic that these “America Firsters”, and proponents of American exceptionalism, supposedly “faithful to the Constitution” are attempting to suppress the youth vote!  (Not to mention turning back national health care.)

Of course, there’s a long and often bloody history of voter suppression in the Sunshine State. Doesn’t anyone remember the 1920 election in Florida?

Black voting rights were in play in the 1920 Florida election. Black WWI veterans who fought in the war to “make the world safe for democracy” in Europe came home to find no democracy in the South.

The Nineteenth Amendment, giving the vote to women, had just been ratified by enough states in the West and the North. (The South was vehemently opposed to women’s suffrage. Florida, for example, ratified the Nineteenth amendment in 1969.  The state of Mississippi was the last in 1984.)

The white South knew that there were black majorities in many communities and that motivated women are a force difficult to control.  True to form, black women registered in droves.  They made their men register to vote and shamed those men who had not done so.

It led to the one of the bloodier elections in U.S. history.  Ocoee, just outside of Orlando, was completely emptied of its black neighborhood of 500 residents in election-related mob violence. Throughout Florida, white mobs stormed the voter lines, lynched some, mutilated others, chased many into swamps, shot many in the back, and burned black residences to the ground.

White power remained unchecked in Florida until the civil rights movement.
Welcome to the new face of Jim Crow in 2011—blacks, Hispanics, and college students.  Perhaps Rick Scott and his backers will try to turn back the right of women to vote.

And perhaps we’re down the road to a rerun of the 1920 election in Florida.

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