Voters Still Disenfranchised by 120 Year Old Florida Statute

By Michael Richards February 10, 2010

Last month, our nation celebrated the remembrance of one of America’s greatest heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who stands with the likes of Mahatma Gandhi as an advocate  for peace,  justice, and equality for all. However, in some places in our country, justice and equality are lacking.  These doors have remained closed, to some extent, not allowing Dr. King’s dream to permeate.

Even in Florida, discrimination has a firmly rooted history.   In 1865, the Florida Legislature wanted to limit the right to vote only to white males, however, in 1887, federal law granted African Americans the right to vote in Florida. Unfortunately, within a year, our Legislature responded with several voter disenfranchisement policies, which included the current challenge statute, F.S. 101.111.

Florida’s statute 101.111 was our Legislature’s response to the federal courts for allowing African Americans to vote.  By enacting a racially charged challenge statute over 120 years ago, we are still faced with ongoing controversies surrounding Election Day challenges in minority voting districts throughout Florida.

Florida’s challenge statute reads that:

“Any registered elector or poll watcher of a county may challenge the right of a person to vote in that county. The challenge must be in writing…[and must have]…reason to believe that _____ is attempting to vote illegally…”

The statute continues to read that “electors or poll watchers shall not be subject to liability for any action taken in good faith…”

In 2005, Florida lawmakers amended its challenge statute to remove provisions that gave challenged voters the opportunity to oppose the challenge at the polls and prove that they are eligible to vote.

In 2006, federal election observers were assigned to cities in five different counties in Florida with one of their stated goals being to ensure that voters were not “challenged improperly on the basis of their race, color, or membership in a language minority group.”

If challenged today, voters still have to appeal to their County Board of Elections and argue that their vote should be counted. However, Florida State Representative Geraldine Thompson of Orlando and Senator Charlie Justice of St. Petersburg have proposed new legislation to amend Florida’s post-Civil War challenge statute.

House Bill 681 and Senate Bill 528, if passed, would prohibit an individual, who is not a state or local election official from submitting a formal challenge to a voter’s eligibility to register to vote or to vote in any election if the challenge is based on a voter caging document.

A voter caging document is a nonforwardable document that is sent by a non-state or local election official and is then returned to the sender as undelivered or undeliverable despite an attempt to deliver such document to the address of a registered elector or an applicant for registration.

These documents are meant to “cage” minority voters and create lists of “non-eligibility” therefore removing potential voting blocks that may vote for one party over another.

It is now 2010, a far cry from 1887 but seemingly not that far from Dr. King and the civil rights movement.  It is saddening to see elected officials having to continue to propose legislation to protect the rights of a select-group of Americans that continue to be disenfranchised by their own government. Yet, it is promising to know that such elected officials are still there for us.