Voting rights: Who needs ’em? 

After the Florida debacle, you’d think the talk would be about protecting voters’ rights. You’d be wrong.

The presidential vote count in Miami-Dade County was dragging into its fourth day earlier this month when disturbing news broke in Washington D.C.: The U.S. Supreme Court announced it would review a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that has been the federal government’s most forceful tool in protecting minority rights at the polls.

That would be the VRA’s Section 5, which requires certain states and counties to obtain “preclearance” with the federal government before instituting new voting procedures. The possibility that the Supreme Court might adjust or even suspend that provision has jolted Democrats and voting rights advocates in Florida and across the country. They’re already upset about electoral reforms that were passed in GOP-led legislatures leading into this election — and they know that some of those measures were blocked in the courts after the Justice Department discovered problems with them during preclearance.

In Florida, absurdly long lines and delayed final vote counts led (as in 2000) to punchlines around the country about the Sunshine State’s apparent incompetence when it comes to voting.

Last week in downtown Tampa, St. Petersburg House Democrat Darryl Rouson proposed legislation that would, among other things, expand early voting days, expand early voting hours and boost the number of polling locations. “Florida was the laughingstock of the nation again this year when it came to voting, and we ought to be tired of that,” he said disgustedly.

Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist joined Rouson at the podium. The potential 2014 gubernatorial candidate insisted that this isn’t a partisan issue, but one of basic fairness. “It’s pretty simple to make sure that people get this right, but Florida got it wrong.”

But will Florida get it right?

Although Florida Republican leaders like Will Weatherford, Don Gaetz and others have said that election reform needs to be considered, none has gone on record so far to admit that the reduction of early voting days from 14 to eight was the wrong thing to do, or guarantee that they’ll agree to restoring the original number.

Voting rights advocates say that if Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act goes away, state legislatures could pass bills like Florida’s HB 1355 (the controversial 2011 bill that reduced early voting) without the scrutiny of a Justice Department review.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 codified that any voting changes in nine (mostly Southern) states and in a number of counties in 16 other states could not be made without getting preclearance from the Department of Justice. States made that list because they had instituted some kind of “test or device” restricting the right to vote (i.e. poll taxes or literacy tests). States in which less than 50 percent of the voting-age population voted in 1960 and/or 1964 were covered in the original act.

A decade later, five counties in Florida (including Hillsborough) were added to the list of Section 5 preclearance jurisdictions, after the law was expanded to include areas that provided materials only in English when members of a language minority (Spanish, in Hillsborough’s case) made up more than 5 percent of voting-age citizens.

Pam Iorio served as Supervisor of Elections in Hillsborough from 1993 to 2003. She admits that during her tenure she considered the preclearance law to be a pain at times, considering the onerous paperwork that had to be sent to the DOJ even to make such mundane changes as the move of a polling station.

But after what happened at the polls earlier this month, she says she’s glad the law exists. “Based on this last experience with elections and the fact that we have worked backwards in so many ways, I think they ought to keep everything in place.”

The basic argument for getting rid of the law is that minority access to voting is much improved since these laws were passed in the 1960s and ’70s.

“Civil rights laws should be designed to combat the evils of society today, not the evils of 1965,” says Joshua Thompson, a staff attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento, California.

Thompson says the original law was designed to eliminate purposeful and invidious discrimination, but was never designed to “nitpick” regarding questionable voting law changes. He says that if there are voting changes that need to be amended, there are other provisions in the Voting Act that could provide redress.

But others disagree.

Harry Sawyer, a Republican, is supervisor of elections in Monroe County, which encompasses Key West, and is also a Section 5 county. Regarding preclearance, he says it’s needed now more than ever.

“We need this kind of scrutiny. Not because of the supervisors of election, [but] because our legislature and our governor can sign and make law without anyone looking at it when it comes to elections. We need that extra level of protection for our voters, because there are times when the governor and the legislature do not act in the best interests of this state when it comes to voting.”

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