Another bitter voting rights battle is brewing in Florida, this time over the new law passed in the Republican-dominated state legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott last week.
Black America Web reports, Black and Latino civic and civil rights activists and good government advocates say the new law, which hasn't yet been implemented, would hinder and intimidate people of color who attempt to register and vote. The law, the leaders contend, is designed to impede and discourage their participation in the political process.
The leaders, who include the Florida League of Women Voters, have accused Secretary of State Kurt Browning of "improperly pushing" elections supervisors in the state's 67 counties to adopt the law before 'pre-clearance' by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ). Five of the counties--Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe--must submit to DOJ review if voting laws or procedures are altered.
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), reacting to outrage voiced by her constituents, this week asked the Department of Justice to block the new law before the pre-clearance process is scheduled to begin in the fall.
Spokesmen for the Justice Department did not return calls for comment. Nor did they respond to e-mails seeking the department's decision on the congresswoman's request.
In a May 31 editorial “Vote Suppression Must Not Stand,” The St. Petersburg Times condemned the new law and its "deeply flawed" elements. "The state should wait until these issues are resolved or Florida may face an untenable bifurcated voting system, with five counties operating under one set of rules and the rest of the state another," the editorial read.
Chris Cate, Browning's spokesman, told BlackAmericaWeb.com, the Secretary of State had not pushed the elections supervisors, but had merely urged them "to wait until pre-clearance before implementing the law." The editorial "is misleading," he charged.
"I don't believe the facts show that that (urging the elections supervisors to wait for pre-clearance) was Browning's initial position," Tim Nickens, editor of The Times’ editorial page, told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
Cate, in response, claimed that he would identify the "misleading" sentences contained in the Times' editorial in an e-mail, but did not do so before this article was posted.
Jessica Lowe-Minor, the Florida League's executive director, said the organization hopes "the Department of Justice will determine that this law is not in compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965."
“This law contains a number of provisions that would prevent volunteer organizations like ours from conducting successful voter registration drives."
The League and civil liberties activists fear that the law, which would force volunteers to swear an oath and mark all their registration forms, will create a plethora of burdensome tasks making it nearly impossible to register voters in significant numbers.
The new law, Lowe-Minor said, "would force us to keep track of every form and submit monthly reports on them. We have thousands of volunteers who keep registration forms on clipboards, or in the trunks of their cars; but we'd still have to keep running tallies and account for them." But the League, Lowe-Minor said, is not equipped to do so. To accomplish all those tasks, she said, "we'd need full time, paid staff."
Lowe-Minor predicted that "the law will have a disproportionate impact on minorities who are twice as likely to register via third party groups like ours."
Moreover, she said, the new law would reverse a 40-year history of allowing voters to update their addresses at the polls on Election Day. "There were more than 150,000 such changes in addresses on election day in 2008." Under the new law, however, "only people who live within the same county can do that, so people who move from another county would need provisional ballots," she said.
Lowe-Minor said the League is concerned that provisional ballots won't be counted and certified in large counties before elections are certified.
"With only three-member counting teams, our fear is that a number of provisional ballots will be not certified before the certification deadline. If you're going to move people to using provisional ballots, you need to ensure that a mechanism (is in place) by which those ballots will be counted before the deadline," she said.
Mia Jones, who chairs the Florida Black Caucus, said the new law is aimed Democrats and middle and lower middle-income minorities in general.
“The Florida Republican Party,” Jones said, "recognizes that minority populations are rising and that they could be the determining factor in the 2012 elections."
She said that population growth among minorities "will have also have an impact on Florida House and Senate races on a long term basis."
Jones said early voting, "which played a large part in Alvin Brown's election as the first African-American mayor of Jacksonville, must be protected, as well as the rights of all Floridians."
The Caucus, Jones said, will meet next week. "Our first concern," she said, "is to be sure that this law does not go forward, but if it does, we'll discuss all our options, including a lawsuit, to block it."