Huge Effort To Stop Black People from Voting in America.. Yesterday and Today.
From the New York Times
Last spring, Florida made some changes to its election law. Cloaked as technical tweaks, the new laws have the potential to swing the 2012 election.
When it comes to presidential elections, Florida matters. With 29 electoral votes, Florida is by far the most influential swing state in the country. Who gets to vote in Florida could determine who will win the election.
There are over 11 million registered voters in the state. But after the changes put in place last spring, there may be far fewer Floridians going to the polls in 2012. President Obama and the Republican nominee will be fighting for every last one of those votes. The state is so critical to the race that there’s early talk of Floridian political stars like Senator Marco Rubio or former Governor Jeb Bush joining the Republican ticket. In 2008, Obama defeated Senator John McCain in Florida by a little more than 200,000 votes, out of more than 8 million cast.
The changes enacted last spring include severe restrictions on groups that register new voters, cutting the early voting period nearly in half and rolling back voting rights for those with criminal convictions in their past.
Of course this year will not be the first time Floridians have had trouble casting a ballot. Most of us remember the perfect storm of Florida election administration that kept the 2000 presidential election hanging on 537 votes for over a month, only to be finally handed to George W. Bush by a 5-4 vote backing an unsigned Supreme Court opinion.
The pathetic scene in 2000 was created by a convergence of administrative errors, technical glitches and a lack of judgment at the highest levels of election administration: broken polling machines, inaccurate and incomplete voter registration lists, inadequate language translation, inaccessible polling places, poorly trained poll workers and an overall lack of preparation for a large voter turnout that created long lines, eligible voters being turned away and valid votes left uncounted.
Although voters across the state were stymied that year, poor and minority communities suffered the worst of it. In a report documenting its comprehensive investigation of the 2000 election, the United States Commission on Civil Rights found that approximately 11 percent of Florida voters in 2000 were African-American; yet African-Americans cast more than half of the 180,000 rejected ballots. The commission found that “statistical data, reinforced by credible anecdotal evidence, point to the widespread denial of voting rights.” The report then concluded that “the disenfranchisement of Florida’s voters fell most harshly on the shoulders of black voters.”
There is a long and troubled history of voter discrimination in Florida. Florida became a state in 1845, but refused to extend civil and political rights to blacks immediately following the Civil War. In its 1865 constitution, Florida explicitly limited the right to vote to “free white males.” In 1866, it rejected the 14th Amendment which granted equal citizenship to freed slaves. As a condition of readmission to the Union, Congress required Florida to extend voting rights regardless of race. In response, Florida’s 1868 Constitution established a legislative apportionment scheme that diminished representation from densely populated black counties and put in place a lifetime voting ban for people with criminal convictions that targeted crimes for which blacks were most often convicted like larceny, perjury and bribery. These measures were followed in 1885 by a poll tax, giving the legislature “the power to make the payment of the capitation tax a prerequisite for voting.”
Throughout the Jim Crow era, African-Americans who tried to register and vote in Florida were harassed and intimidated, resulting in extremely low voter registration rates. In 1961, the United States Commission on Civil Rights documented several of these incidents. In Liberty County, according to the Commission’s report:
Some Negroes registered in 1956, but thereafter they were subjected to harassment. Crosses were burned and fire bombs hurled upon their property, and abusive and threatening telephone calls were made late at night. Two white men advised one of the registrants that if the Negroes would remove their names from the books all the trouble would stop. All but one did remove their names, and their troubles ended; the one who did not was forced to leave the county.
The commission’s report presented corresponding statistics which showed that in the Florida counties with the highest black populations, the rates of black voter registration were the lowest in the state. In Gadsden County, one of two Florida counties where in 1960 blacks were the majority of the local population, there were 12,261 African-Americans of voting age, only seven of whom were registered to vote.
In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act to outlaw discriminatory voting rules and practices. Section 5 of the Act requires certain parts of the country, with particularly egregious histories of voting discrimination, to obtain approval from the federal government before making changes to their state election laws. Although Florida had a long history of voter discrimination, it was not originally covered by Section 5.
In 1975, Congress extended Section 5’s provisions and expanded its scope to address voting discrimination against members of language minority groups. After this expansion, five counties in Florida, which make up about nine percent of Florida’s total voting age population, now fall under Section 5 based on documented discrimination against language minorities. As a result, any changes to the state election code that will impact those counties must be “precleared” by either the Department of Justice or the federal district court in Washington.
So where do things stand today in Florida? Not surprisingly, it’s a bit complicated.
Florida should remember its past and then leave it behind.
In March 2011, Governor Rick Scott rolled back the right to vote for hundreds of thousands – perhaps as many as a million – Florida citizens who have criminal records. Florida has long had one of the harshest felony voting bans in the country, but Governor Scott not only reversed some moderate reforms put in place by former Governor Charlie Crist, he made the state’s policy even more restrictive than it was under the previous governor, Jeb Bush.
Under the new rules, even people with nonviolent convictions must wait five years after they complete all terms of their sentences before they are allowed to apply for restoration of civil rights; the clock resets if an individual is arrested, including for a misdemeanor, during the five-year waiting period. In some cases, people must wait seven years before being able to apply, and then they must appear in person for a hearing before the clemency board in Tallahassee. Remember: all of this has to happen just to have the opportunity to ask for one’s right to vote back. After the waiting period, the application and the hearing, you could be denied restoration with no reason or explanation. And if that happens, you have to wait another two years before starting the process all over again.
Prior to Governor Scott’s changes, nearly a quarter of those disenfranchised in Florida were African-American. The new rules will most likely increase this number. For example, Florida law enforcement statistics show that nearly 35 percent of all arrests and 41 percent of drug arrests in Florida in 2010 were of African-Americans (African-Americans make up 16 percent of the state’s population). Consequently, the new “arrest-free” waiting period is likely to increase the impact on minorities.
In May 2011, Governor Scott signed an omnibus election law that makes it more difficult to register and to vote in Florida. The new law imposes severe restrictions and penalties on nonpartisan groups that register voters and slashes the number of days allowed for early voting, including eliminating the option of voting on the Sunday before Election Day.
These may seem like little technical tweaks, but in fact their impact could be dramatic. According to the League of Women Voters, African-American and Hispanic voters register to vote through community registration drives at twice the rate of white voters. Nearly 54 percent of Florida’s African-American voters used early voting sites in 2008. On the Sunday before the election, African-Americans accounted for nearly a third of the statewide turnout.
A series about the complexities of voters and voting.
The new restrictions on voter registration groups include requiring every individual who registers voters on behalf of an organization to register his name and address with the state, and requires groups to turn in completed registration forms within 48 hours, or risk fines and penalties. As a result, the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote have shut down their voter registration efforts in the state. There has already been a significant drop-off in new voter registration. Last week, The Times reported that in the months since the new law took effect, 81,471 fewer Floridians have registered to vote than in the same period in 2008.
In January, the Okaloosa County Branch of the Florida N.A.A.C.P. registered several new voters on Sunday of Martin Luther King weekend. According to the Times, the group submitted the forms on Tuesday, Jan. 17, when the local elections office reopened. Soon after, the group was copied on an e-mail from the county supervisor of elections reporting that the forms were turned in an hour past the 48-hour deadline.
The official rationale for these changes remains vague. Legislators who supported the new law said the tighter restrictions would combat fraud, but they have yet to identify a specific problem that will be addressed by these changes. In one of the few public statements from supporters of the law, State Senator Michael Bennett provided some clarity, explaining his support for the legislation during the floor debate:
You say it is inconvenient. Ever read the stories about people in Africa? People in the desert who literally walk 200-300 miles so they could have an opportunity to do what we do? And we want to make it more convenient? How much more convenient do you want to make it? Want to go to their house? Take the polling booth with us? This is a hard fought privilege. This is something people died for. And you want to make it convenient? To the guy who died to give you that right, it was not convenient. Why would we make it any easier? I want ‘em to fight for it. I want ‘em to know what it’s like. I want ‘em to have to walk across town to go over and vote.
The lengths to which Governor Scott is willing to go to defend this new law also raise flags about whether they are merely a technical fix or something more powerful. Last June, Florida submitted these changes to the Department of Justice as required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. National and local voting rights groups strongly opposed the state’s submission, arguing that the new law disproportionately harmed minority voters.
A month later, before the D.O.J. could issue its ruling on the new law, Florida withdrew its submission from the D.O.J.’s review, opting instead to seek approval from the federal district court. In October, the state filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Then in December, a number of voting rights groups challenged the law on First Amendment grounds, arguing that speaking to and registering voters is protected speech. That’s a lot of legal maneuvering, and the impact of these various lawsuits on Florida’s role in the presidential election remains unknown.
Florida should remember its past and then leave it behind. Rather than creating new and different obstructions to voting, it is time for the state to do its part to realize the true promise of our democracy. That cannot happen until Florida repeals the barriers it put in place last year and allows the Voting Rights Act to do its job. How much longer will we have to wait until every vote counts?
Erika L. Wood is an associate professor of law at New York Law School. Christopher Binns, a student at New York Law School, contributed research to this article.
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