In June 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated a key section of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. At the same time they invited Congress to revise the VRA to continue to provide voter protections against any form of discrimination. Though there was bipartisan support, the House Judiciary Committee failed to move the VRA forward, and activists say today that the rights of millions of voter are in jeopardy.
On Monday's conference call, information about both recent and historical instances of voter discrimination in Florida were discussed. Issues deliberated included the effects of at-large elections and eliminating polling places for elections. They also looked at how counties comprised of a high population of minorities still fail to elect their own to elective office.
Erin Hustings, Senior Policy Analyst at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund, said, “The Shelby County made a decision which weakened the Voting Rights Act. Those voters are more vulnerable.” She continued, “The number one reason we are here today calling on members of Congress from the Florida delegation to advance the Voting Rights Amendment Act which would address the Supreme Court’s decision is that discrimination in Florida elections unfortunately persists.”
Under the Voting Rights Act prior to the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby county decision, there were five counties in Florida that were covered under the pre-clearance procedures (including Hillsborough). Hustings said that the state's policy was actually to apply the same rules in those counties as they did throughout the state. “So the pre-clearance process under the VRA actually extended protections to all Floridians.”
The leaders disclosed the instance of Osceola County back in 2008, where the Latino community had rapidly grown, accounting for 40 percent of the county’s residents. Despite this growth spurt, no Latino candidate had ever been elected to the County’s five-member school board. The first Latino member of the School Board won office after the first election held in August 2008 due to a complaint that was filed. The county acknowledged that the proposed single- member districts violated the Voting Rights Act and agreed to create a Latino-majority district.
“In 2008, there were about 1,850 million eligible Latino voters and they were about fourteen and a half percent of the electorate," Hustings said. "By 2012, in just four years, there were about 2,340 million eligible Latino Florida voters and they represented more than 17 percent of the electorate. We expect this growth to continue."
“Anyone who believes that there is no voter discrimination in today’s society has blinders and earplugs on.” declared Luz Urbaez Weinberg, a City Commissioner from Aventura and Vice President of the NALEO board.
In 2012 an academic study of official data and polling place closing times discovered that the states African American and Latino voters not only waited twice as long for white voters to cast votes in ballots, but also that they were twice as likely to take twice as long to vote. Weinberg confessed to standing in line for an extended period herself to cast her vote at that time.
The Town of Lake Park voluntarily agreed to end its use of “at-large elections” to elect members to the town commission in 2009. Before this time, the African Americans citizen voting age population constituted 38 percent, but no African Americans candidates had ever been elected to the Commission in the town’s history. The use of “at-large elections” has had notable discriminatory effects, with historical evidence that racial appeals in political campaigning, placement of polling places outside majority-minority neighborhoods, and exclusion of African American candidates from certain candidate slating processes were magnified.
The leaders at the conference mutually agreed that discriminated voters need protection from this act. They stress that it is essential for legislations to provide new ways to anticipate voter discrimination and mechanisms to propose changes to election laws that will be fair to the entire community. They urge the public that in order for progress people should not wait but take action immediately.
Hustings concluded, “Latinos and all voters in Florida need Voter Rights Act protection and remedies not just to ensure we don’t lose the gains we’ve made toward equality, but also so that we redress voting discrimination that have occurred in recent years, and is still occurring as we speak.”
The continual fight to protect discrimination against voters in Florida persists as leaders from the diverse Latino communities say that the Florida congressional delegation should move the Voting Rights Act (VRA) forward. The VRA provides solutions to help deter some of the inequity faced by voters and also ensures that any proposed election changes are transparent.