When the Right to Vote Goes Wrong
America’s journey towards a more perfect democracy has been a long, purposeful march. The path has been steep and bloody. Even today, the destination remains illusive on that shrouded mountaintop.
From the onset, of course, our democracy was not an all-inclusive game. It was a sport for white, property-owning males. Over the years—nearly 200 years—voting rights were extended across the board. Women could vote. Blacks could vote. Kids who had long been considered old enough to send to war could vote when they reached the age of 18. Property ownership requirement was dropped. A voter only had to be a United States citizen.
Everyone seemed to be in agreement: the more people voting, the better. On either side of the partisan aisle, greater voter participation was a win for the notion of a healthy democracy. Voter registration was made as easy as possible to encourage people to participate in the process.
But what if a more robust democracy isn’t the end game? What if winning the election and retaining power are?
Lately, it appears Republican lawmakers across the country have come to the realization that it’s too risky to leave elections in the hands of the most voters possible.
In state after state, Republican-controlled legislatures have tweaked election laws in such a way that traditionally Democratic voters stand to get left out of the process.
“There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit a franchise that we see today,” former President Bill Clinton said this past summer. “Are you fighting? You should be fighting?”
Florida is one state that is operating under new election rules this year. Shortly after Gov. Rick Scott rolled back voting rights for ex-felons who had served their sentence, the state’s Republican legislators got to work passing a law that limits early voting, makes the voter registration process a tricky proposition and does not allow voters to update their addresses at the polls.
“Our vote is precious,” said the law’s sponsor, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, “and we’re going to protect it.”
But whose vote did Baxley want to protect? And what precipitated this dramatic shift from the past?
MARCHING TO THE MOUNTAINTOP
Alabama has a literal path commemorating the African-American community’s journey in the South towards voting equality. The Selma To Montgomery Voting Rights Trail—designated a U.S. National Historic Trail—memorializes a series of marches in 1965.
After African-Americans encountered resistance to their voter registration efforts, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders focused their attention on Selma and nearby areas. On Feb. 18, 1965, marchers at the courthouse in Marion were attacked and one man was shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper.
Marches were planned to Montgomery to address the Marion incident and to ask Gov. George Wallace to protect blacks who were registering to vote.
The first of the three starts toward Montgomery was led by a young John Lewis. He led marchers out of Selma and across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On the other side of the bridge, the group was stopped in their tracks by a legion of state troopers with billy clubs and tear gas. The incident became known as Bloody Sunday.
Last July, Lewis—now a longtime Democratic congressman from Georgia—again spoke out for voting rights, this time from the House floor. He urged his fellow lawmakers to pay attention to the efforts by state legislators across the country to impose various hurdles upon the voting process. These efforts, he thought, didn’t seem in line with the spirit of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“Voter rights are under attack in America,” Lewis told them. “There’s a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in a democratic process.”
A week after Lewis got beat down in Selma, President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered an address before a joint session of Congress. He pleaded with lawmakers—speaking for the “dignity of man and the destiny of democracy”—to pass legislation to prevent states from obstructing certain would-be voters.
“At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama,” Johnson said, later summing up his argument—“Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.”
In December of last year, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas. He quoted the former president.
“In 1965, when President Johnson signed the landmark Voting Rights Act into law,” Holder said, “he proclaimed that the right to vote is the basic right, without which all others are meaningless.”
The Attorney General also relayed Rep. Lewis’s remarks before Congress to the Texas audience, whom he believed had the right to be concerned.
“Despite so many decades of struggle, sacrifices and achievement, we must remain ever vigilant in safeguarding our most basic right,” Holder said. “Too many recent actions have the potential to reverse the progress that defines us—and has made this nation exceptional, as well as an example for all the world.”
Such political addresses might make good fodder for Dawn Quarles’ advance placement government class at Pace High School.
THE FRAUD FRAUD
When the phone rang on Halloween, Quarles had no idea who was on the line or what they were talking about. The Associated Press reporter wanted to know if she was aware that the state of Florida considered her in violation of a new election law.
“He was calling to see if I knew about that,” Quarles recalled. “And, of course, I did not know.”
As part of her job teaching high school students about government, the Pace teacher registers her students to vote. She has done so for years, turning the registration forms in within the 10-day timeline. However, Quarles was unaware of Florida’s new 48-hour turnaround requirement on third party registrars.
“It’s not a defense,” she said. “It’s just my excuse.”
According to the new law, third party voter registrars must turn registration forms in to an elections office within 48 hours. People found in violation face a $50 per form penalty, or a $1,000 fine.
Suddenly, the Pace High School teacher found herself at the center of a voting rights debate.
“This has gotten national media attention,” Quarles said. “Colbert’s show came down and did a segment—Soledad O’Brien came down.”
The new state elections law of which the government teacher had run afoul started out as HB 1355. Florida legislators signed the bill into law last May, with critics dubbing it the Voter Suppression Act.
Legislators—Republican ones—argued that the new law was needed to combat voter fraud. Critics—Democrats, and a couple of renegade Republicans—maintained that it effectively disenfranchises certain voters.
The new law contains numerous measures, but there are a few big ones that everyone seems to be watching closely. In addition to the 48-hour registration form turnaround for third party registrars, the new law shortens the popular early voting period from two weeks to eight days and does not allow voters to update their address at the poll.
The law passed almost entirely along party lines, with Democrats crying foul. The law, they said, was a thinly veiled attempt to minimize the turnout of traditionally left-leaning blocs of voters.
“I have to wonder whether the only problem that can be found with our elective process is that maybe some people didn’t like the outcome of our last presidential election,” Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich (D-Weston) said at the time.
Republican lawmakers staked out curiously backwards turf in their defense of the new law. They were intent, it seemed, on reading an inside-out version of the Voting Rights Act.
“We do make it easy for people to vote in Florida,” said Sen. Mike Bennett (R-Bradenton). “But I’ve gotta tell you, I wouldn’t have any problem making it harder.”
In Northwest Florida, the legislators were on board with HB 1355. They cited fraud as the law’s aim.
“My understanding is we were having a lot of signatures that were not legitimate,” said Rep. Clay Ford, adding that he thought the 48-hour limit on third parties might need to be reexamined. “I think four of five days, or a normal work week, is more realistic.”
Rep. Clay Ingram disagreed, feeling the time limit is sufficient.
“When you’re handling those voter registration forms, it’s almost a sacred duty,” he said. “I think 48 hours is plenty of time.”
When Quarles found herself outside the confines of the new law, she contacted her state senator, Greg Evers.
“Of course I called him—first thing,” the teacher said, recalling how the senator told her the law was needed to keep organizations like ACORN—a favorite whipping boy of the GOP during the 2008 presidential campaign—from loading the rolls with worthless registrations. “The law wasn’t really meant to target people like me.”
During the debate leading up to HB 1355’s passage, lawmakers were unable to point to specific instances of the voter fraud that they were hoping to prevent. Sen. Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa) called them on it.
“There’s been no fraud,” she said. “Where are the statistics to back up that allegation?”
U.S. Congressman Jeff Miller shied away from discussing the ramifications of the Florida’s new voting law. He painted it as a state issue.
“I know that supervisors of elections were involved in helping to make those changes,” Miller told the IN.
MICKEY MOUSE IN THE STATE HOUSE
State lawmakers did seek input from the supervisors of elections when the legislators began looking to overhaul Florida’s election laws. Escambia County Supervisor of Elections David Stafford is head of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections and was in Tallahassee for much of the debate.
Looking back on it, Stafford doesn’t remember fraud being a big concern among his fellow officials. Many believed the state already had pretty good rules in place to prevent fraud.
“Our state has a good system in place,” Stafford said. “You’re not gonna have the Mickey Mouses and Donald Ducks.”
The chief concern of the elections supervisors was how to expand the locations for early voting, which had been highly successful in the 2008 and 2010 elections. They wanted more flexibility in selecting voting places.
In the end, early voting locations were not expanded. Instead, the early voting time period was cut.
“I don’t want to try to speculate on the motives of legislators—I think there’s enough out there for people to speculate on,” Stafford said. “Once these decisions are made, and once these legislations are passed, and once the governor signs off, we have to implement it.”
While Stafford prefers to steer clear of speculation, there are others who are quite comfortable speculating. Sabu Williams, president of the Okaloosa branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), thinks the Republicans’ fraud-argument is complete hooey.
“Oh please, there was more voter fraud in the caucus in Iowa than there was in the state of Florida,” he said. “There is just absolutely no evidence of that ever happening.”
Elvin McCorvey, president of the NAACP’s Pensacola branch, doesn’t buy the fraud explanation either.
“That’s just a smokescreen,” he said. “I can’t say that for sure but I have my suspicions.”
Up in the D.C. offices of the NAACP, Hillary Shelton, its senior vice president of advocacy and policy, is less concerned with the front end than with the back end.
“Intents are always difficult, unless you can find a smoking memo,” Shelton said. “But we shouldn’t have to. Look at the effect.”
Minorities, students and the elderly—traditionally viewed as Democrats or more progressive independent voters—could be disproportionately inconvenienced by the shortened early voting period, stricter voter registration rules and the inability to update an address on the spot. Some argue that the impact of the new law on these groups aren’t unintentional and that there are no legislative accidents.
“People in Tallahassee don’t just sit around and think ‘What can I pass today,’” said Rosemary Hays-Thomas, co-president of the Pensacola Bay Area League of Women Voters. “There is a purpose.”
JAMES CROW, ESQ.
In mid-December, Heather Smith had the music playing loud.
“Can you turn that radio down,” Smith yelled to someone near the volume knob, as she picked up the phone.
As the president of Rock the Vote, an organization that registers and educates primarily young voters, Smith was busy studying the nation’s electoral landscape. She was particularly fixated on Florida.
“It’s a state where we’ve done significant work,” Smith said.
But those days are over for now. Rock the Vote has pulled its operations out of the state in the wake of last year’s new election law.
“They’re really quite intimidating and risky,” she said, explaining that the 48-hour turnaround requirement for third party registration forms pose a problem for the group.
Deirdre Macnab, president of the Florida League of Women Voters, agreed. She called the state’s new rules a “mountain of risk and red tape” and said the measures “effectively regulate third party registration groups out of existence.” That’s why, after more than 70 years, the League is suspending its voter registration efforts in Florida.
“Our volunteers simply do not have an attorney on one hand and an administrative assistant on the other hand,” Macnab said.
Both the League and Rock the Vote, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, have signed on to a lawsuit challenging Florida’s new law. The suit is one of several taking on HB 1355.
The federal government has expressed concern as well. On Jan. 27, Democratic U.S. Senators Bill Nelson(D-Florida), and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) held a field hearing in Tampa to get a better handle on Florida’s new law. The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights is interested in whether the state’s law is disenfranchising any particular groups of people, thus violating the Voter Rights Act.
“There are people literally fighting and dying for the right to vote in countries like Syria,” Durbin said in Tampa, “and we are finding ways to restrict the right to vote?”
Nelson called for the subcommittee hearing because he wanted to find out if the new law was a result of “an orchestrated effort to suppress the vote.”
“We’re here to examine, among other things, how one of these election laws made its way through the Florida Legislature and was quickly signed by the governor—despite widespread public outcry,” Nelson said in a statement.
In September, Durbin wrote Gov. Scott to express concern about aspects of Florida’s new law. At the beginning of this year, the senator wrote Scott again, inviting the governor to the Tampa hearing.
Scott didn’t make the hearing. The governor has, in fact, shown no interest in backing off any aspects of the election law.
The U.S. Department of Justice may step in. The Voting Rights Act, which was passed during Johnson’s administration, requires that areas that have struggled with voting rights issues in the past must have federal approval prior to changing any election laws. Five Florida counties—Hendry, Collier, Hardee, Hillsborough and Monroe—fall into that category, and will be operating under the state’s old election laws until that approval is received.
Instead of seeking federal approval from the U.S. Department of Justice, Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning opted to have the more controversial measures of the new law put before a three-judge panel. Browning also filed an unsuccessful petition in federal court to have the part of the Voting Rights Act requiring federal approval of election law changes for areas with discriminatory histories thrown out, arguing that section was antiquated and unconstitutional.
Browning, who submitted his resignation on Jan. 11, apparently did not get an invitation to the Tampa field hearing.
“You know, I’ve heard of the committee,” said Chris Cate, the secretary of state’s communications director. “But we haven’t been invited—it’s rather surprising.”
During the hearing, the senators heard from a number of witnesses, most of which painted a portrait of voting rights taking a step backwards in Florida. Volusia County Supervisor of Elections Ann McFall told the committee that disallowing people to change their addresses at the polls—instead requiring them to vote via provisional ballot—will have an impact on college students.
Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor, reported that in the 2008 general election, African-Americans composed only 13 percent of the total vote, but accounted for 31 percent of the votes cast on the Sunday before Election Day; Hispanics saw similar numbers, at 11percent and 22 percent respectively.
In Northwest Florida, Okaloosa NAACP President Williams said he has already run up against the new law in his voter registration efforts when he was an hour late turning in registration forms following the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday office closures.
“The average person would say ‘screw this,’ and I’m using polite words,” Williams said. “If they make the hurdle so high, people just say ‘to heck with it, I won’t jump the hurdle.’”
During conversations about the country’s new crop of election laws, the NAACP’s Shelton conjured up an illustration. He draws parallels with the South’s Jim Crow days and imagines a polished, modern offspring—‘James Crow Esq.’
“Again, I hate to be paranoid about it, but, you know, as the saying goes, just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me,” Shelton said. “We use to call it Jim Crow, but now it’s much more sophisticated, much more high-tech.”
Not that Florida’s election laws need to be too sophisticated to tilt an election. In a state that Barack Obama won in 2008 by only 51 percent, it won’t take much.
“Well, Florida’s a state in play, you know that, and any percentage point one way or another—right or left, red or blue—has got to be hustled,” said Williams. “The Republicans have figured out how to move the needle point a few percentage points in their direction.”
Republicans, meanwhile, maintain they are safeguarding the democratic process. At Pace High School, Quarles said the new election law is providing her government class with some interesting lessons as they wait to learn if Florida’s new rules are in line with federal law or, perhaps, a darker plot to suppress the vote in the Sunshine State.
“Honestly, I have to say,” conceded Quarles, “a Republican-controlled legislature with a Republican governor—it seems a little sketchy.”
Although Florida legislators passed HB 1355 last year, there are currently efforts to reverse the new elections law, dubbed by critics as the “Voter Suppression Act.”
In addition to several legal challenges and questions from the federal government concerning the new law’s constitutionality, Florida’s election law is also under attack from lawmakers in Tallahassee.
“In my view, there’s something wrong,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, of the new law. “That’s not opening up fair voting.”
In an effort to reverse the more controversial sections of the new law—the cutback on early voting, changes in third party registration requirements and rules pertaining to address changes—Pafford has introduced HB 1189, into the Florida House. Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich has introduced SB 516, which also aims to turn back the Florida’s new election law.
Pafford isn’t entirely optimistic about the bills’ chances. He’s expecting an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled bodies.
“I’ve got no signal whatsoever that it’ll even get heard,” Pafford said of his bill.