Voter suppression in Florida

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By Drollene Brown

Guest Columnist

Ooooh! Aaah! Those are sounds of citizens watching fireworks at Williston’s Independence Day Celebration. How many adults oohing and aahing this year will exercise their right to vote in August and November?
This year Floridians’ voting rights have been challenged on three fronts—new registration rules, shortening of early voting period and citizenship challenges.
New registration rules received publicity when a Florida civics teacher was arrested and fined for doing what she’s done before: registering students to vote. Unaware of the new time constraints, she had not turned in the completed forms within 48 hours. Other new requirements were designed to deny applications.
Fearing jail terms and huge fines, the League of Women Voters decided not to have their usual voter registration drive in the state this year. After researching the possibilities, one small group, Citizens for an Engaged Electorate, decided to register voters as a third party entity. Members agree that only citizens should have the right to vote, but because the franchise is sacred, CEE opposes any measures that unduly infringe on that right.
After the decision by LWV to just say no and CEE’s vow to step in, a federal judge determined that the new registration rules had a disproportionate impact on African-Americans and Latinos. He ruled further that the law intimidated groups trying to register voters with heavy fines and requirements, deeming them “harsh and impractical.”
With that news, LWV decided to return to voter registration and education events. Before the ruling and LWV’s change of heart, four members of CEE—Ocala resident Jim Carrell and Levy County residents Adelia Vachon, Babs Hale and Drollene Brown—had begun registering voters. On May 23 at Williston High School they registered 15 seniors busy with final exams and getting graduation gowns. The group plans to return in September.
CEE members will also be at Horseman’s Park to register voters at the Independence Day celebration on July 3, a few hours before the oohing and aahing begin. In their June meeting they will decide whether to suspend their registration efforts in light of LWV’s activities.
Suppressing registration is only one part of the state’s move to limit voter rights. In addition to limiting the period for early voting, there is an effort by the state to kick thousands of voters off the registration rolls, making CEE’s efforts seem a little like spitting into a local farm pond after the June rains.
No Levy County citizen was challenged regarding his right to vote. But 2,600 letters went to other Floridians, many of them veterans who have voted all their lives. The letters challenging “potential non-citizens” were based on an outdated, error-riddled driver’s license database. Here we go again.
Florida has a reputation for messing up elections, and I’m talking ancient history. The presidential election of 2000 can be ignored in searching for examples. Our messy history goes back further than that.
In 1876 Samuel Tildon won the nation’s popular vote over Rutherford B. Hayes, but the winner was in contention in Florida until March 1877, when a compromise was reached. Florida’s four electoral votes were cast for Hayes in exchange for his pledge to end Reconstruction, essentially allowing Jim Crow laws to flourish.
That election cycle was called the “Fraud of the Century,” but 12 years later, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison battled over the presidency. Although Cleveland won the popular vote, voter suppression in Florida resulted in Harrison’s being awarded the state’s electoral votes.
The following year, the Florida legislature enacted the first poll tax in the South, a measure that would not be repealed until 1938. The poor—mainly “colored” and immigrants—were unable to pay the tax and were therefore denied their right to vote.
Between 1880 and 1910, along with other states, in addition to literacy tests and property qualifications, Florida enacted “grandfather clauses,” which allowed people to vote only if their grandfathers had voted.
We know from experience that disenfranching even a thousand citizens can swing an election. Let’s say this plainly: from 1876 through 2012, voter suppression acts have targeted African-Americans and other minorities (in this century, Latinos). It’s a matter of race, not citizenship.
This time around, justice may prevail, even though the state insists that it will ignore new federal rulings on the matter. The Federal Department of Justice recently told the state that this year’s purge is a violation of 1964’s Voting Rights Act and 1993’s National Voter Registration Act, which prohibits states from removing voters from the rolls within 90 days prior to a federal election. Florida’s Congressional Primaries will be held on August 14. Time’s up.