Florida is the voter-suppression capital of the United States.
-Approximately one million Florida citizens are disenfranchised for life, unless granted clemency from the governor and Cabinet.
-Florida has been one of the most gerrymandered states — until voters amended their constitution to prohibit redistricting favoring or disfavoring an incumbent or political party, or diluting the votes of racial and language minorities.
-The Legislature further suppressed voting with what I call the Voter Suppression Act of 2011 (House Bill 1355), featuring a trifecta of voter-suppression tactics including:
Discouraging voter-registration efforts.
HB 1355 requires organizations to submit voter-registration forms within 48 hours or face penalties of up to $1,000. Previously, volunteers had 10 days to submit completed applications. We now have an absurd law that fines schoolteachers for encouraging their students to become fully engaged citizens by registering to vote.
The Legislature’s rationale was the less-than-honest claim about the need “to combat voter fraud” (or “potential fraud,” as the governor acknowledged, since there was no evidence of fraud). Rep. Eric Eisnaugle claimed “Mickey Mouse was registered to vote” — failing to acknowledge that election officials detected the prank and rejected the application.
Requiring provisional ballots.
Long-standing policy allowed people who moved from one county to another and needed to update their addresses at the polls to swear an affirmation and vote by regular ballot. HB 1355 requires voters to cast provisional ballots, fewer than half of which were counted in 2008.
Reducing early voting days.
The new law reduces the number of early voting days from 14 to eight, and bans early voting on the Sunday before Election Day, when many African-American churches organized a “Souls to the Polls” program.
The rationale offered by the law’s Senate sponsor — under-usage of early voting — was less than forthright. In 2008, 2.6 million Floridians (31.25 percent of all votes cast) voted at early voting locations. The Orlando Sentinel reported that a majority of Florida’s African-American voters — nearly 54 percent — cast their ballots during early voting.
This change makes voting less convenient for working people who have difficulty obtaining transportation to polling places or getting time off from work to vote.
Florida is seeking approval of the Voter Suppression provisions in federal court. The American Civil Liberties Union has intervened, representing two county supervisors of elections, the AFL-CIO, Project Vote and others. Another lawsuit is challenging the voter-registration provisions as restricting First Amendment freedoms.
Since the Civil War, the federal government has had the responsibility to prevent states from interfering with the fundamental rights of their citizens. The government should challenge Florida policies that:
-Interfere with the right to vote or jeopardize whether a vote will be counted.
-Allow votes in presidential and congressional elections to be discarded because ballots were cast in the wrong precincts.
-Lack uniformity regarding the length of early voting periods and when provisional ballots may be required in federal elections.
-Deny the right of those who have been disenfranchised because of a prior criminal conviction from voting in federal elections.
The right to vote is the most fundamental right of a citizen in a democracy. It is not a privilege.
Government has the responsibility to make the exercise of that right as easy as possible, consistent with good election management. At the least, officials should encourage more voters, not make it more difficult for voters to register and cast their ballots.
Howard L. Simon is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.