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The intent of the 15th Amendment is clear — even in Florida

A federal judge just struck down a law passed by Republicans in Florida that would have made it harder for many citizens to vote.

Members of the Pinellas County canvassing board processing ballots in Largo, Florida, on November 3, 2020.
Members of the Pinellas County canvassing board processing ballots in Largo, Florida, on November 3, 2020.
REUTERS/Octavio Jones

The 15th Amendment, passed in the aftermath of the Civil War, is plain in its intent.

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Adopted after the Civil War and after the abolition of slavery (by the 13th Amendment), and after the 14th Amendment banned states from depriving any of its citizens of their “privileges and immunities,” the 15th makes it unconstitutional for states to deny or even reduce the equal right of non-whites to vote.

It was pushed through by Republicans, back when the “Party of Lincoln” was the party that favored equal rights for the freed slaves and their descendants.

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But the former Party of Lincoln has now become the party that seeks to slide around those principles, including the principle that the descendants of slaves have an equal right to vote that is equal to the right of the descendants of their former masters. Though fundamentally racist, the reason Republicans don’t want Blacks to vote is essentially partisan. Nowadays, Black voters generally vote for Democrats.

And, notwithstanding the 15th Amendment, Republicans have found plenty of ways to hold down the level of Black voting. One of the most recent efforts is a Florida law to make it harder for Blacks to vote.

The latest such effort is covered by a recent column by the great historian (and author and blogger and podcaster) Heather Cox Richardson of Boston College, whose scholarship focuses on the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era.

Although Donald Trump carried Florida in both 2016 and 2020, it was close both times (51-48 percent in 2020) and, as seems obvious, the key to future Republican success depends on holding down the Black vote. The Legislature rushed through a law that federal Judge Mark Walker just struck down on the basis that that law “runs roughshod over the right to vote, unnecessarily making voting harder for all eligible Floridians, unduly burdening disabled voters, and intentionally targeting minority voters — all to improve the electoral prospects of the party in power.”

The “party in power” in Florida is the Republican Party. Judge Walker wrote that, “This Court finds that the Legislature enacted [this bill] to improve the Republican Party’s electoral prospects.”

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And, Richardson notes, Walker required Florida to get the approval of the federal government before trying to make any more such changes for the next ten years.

Florida is appealing the ruling. I make no conjecture on how that will turn out. States are pretty much in charge of how they run their elections, but the Constitution specifies that Congress has the power to “make or alter” such state regulations.

I suspect this will not be the only instance in which state legislatures will be fiddling with the running of their elections.

It’s quaint, I suppose, to suggest that the purpose of those elections is to let the voters of those states decide for themselves, without either party having a thumb on the scales.

If you missed it above, here’s another link to the full Richardson column.