In Florida, Implementation of Electoral Reform Law Will Suppress Minority Voting Rights

Last legislative session, the Florida state legislature passed a bill that dramatically overhauled Florida's election laws. The sweeping changes in that law represent a direct assault on voting rights in Florida precisely at a time when Americans, embattled by the economic downturn of recent years, are striving to be heard by our country's leadership. Until recent weeks, the law had been under review by the U.S. Department of Justice which requires states with histories of voter discrimination, like Florida, to subject its electoral reform laws to a preclearance process. Florida must prove that the new rules will not have any discriminatory effect on voting in order to obtain that clearance. While many of law's provisions have been precleared, the four most controversial measures were withdrawn from that process by the Florida Department of State who has opted for a costly federal court review in hopes of boosting its chances of obtaining a green light to implement.

While the laws proponents argue the new rules were put in place to curb voter fraud, the argument just doesn't hold water; incidents of voter fraud over the last decade in Florida have been extremely rare and virtually no cases were reported prior to the passage of the law of registration fraud connected to third-party voter registration drives. What the law will curb instead, are the rights of minority voters in the State. Studies have shown that Hispanics and other minorities are among the most frequent early voters in the State. In 2008, one-third of Florida's Hispanics and over half of the State's African-American voters cast their ballots during the two-week early vote period prior to Election Day. The new law purports to cut that early vote period nearly in half from 15 days to a mere eight, and completely eliminate voting the Sunday prior to the election, the day in 2008 where 32 percent of the black Floridian electorate voted.

In addition to cutting down early voting, the law would not allow voters to change their names or addresses at the polling location on Election Day as has been allowed over the course of the past four decades. Given the high rights of foreclosures in the State, particularly within Hispanic and other minority communities, many families will have changed addresses since the last election. Many of them will be unaware of the new requirement and on Election Day will be forced to fill out a provisional ballot. The problem with provisional ballots? On average studies show they are only counted 50 percent of the time.

Non-partisan voter groups in the State, such as the League of Women Voters (LWV), Democracia USA (now part of NCLR), and the Boy Scouts will also be severely affected by the new law. Stringent requirements and shortened turn-around timelines will place an undue burden on non-profit groups that are responsible for registering a significant percentage of Florida's voters, many of them minority voters who are twice as likely to register at a third-party voter registration drive as their white counterparts. Because of the inability to meet the increased financial burden placed on them by the new rules, many of them, such as the League of Women Voters, will likely cease those operations in the State. Undoubtedly this will lead to a major decline in new registered voters who are more often than not likely to be minorities, new immigrants and youth.

Several weeks ago, the National Council of la Raza and the League of Women Voters filed an intervening motion to prevent the implementation of these provisions. If allowed to go into effect, millions of Hispanic and other minority voters across the state will become disenfranchised. Florida's example is likely one to be duplicated in other states, creating a dangerous precedent that is likely to scale back some of the progress we've fought so hard for as a nation, over the last half of a century.

Gov. Rick Scott and Florida's Secretary of State, Kurt Browning filed a petition in federal court asking that the section of the Voting Rights Act that provides protection for minority voters in counties with detailed histories of minority discrimination in voting, be thrown out. These efforts, all paid for by taxpayer monies, demonstrate a determined effort to push for full implementation of a law that only serves to undercut the basic American right granted to all citizens of this great nation--the right to vote.

Now, more than ever, as citizens are increasingly taking to the streets, demanding more of their elected leadership, exercising their right to redress, we cannot allow for their disenfranchisement regardless of race, creed or political persuasion. Today we must ask Florida's leadership to cease their efforts to undermine democracy and instead, take up the issues and concerns of Florida's citizens so that together, we can move the State, and the nation, forward.

This was first posted to the NCLR Blog.