Voter Suppression in Florida

You might think being responsible for arguably the worst election debacle in American history, in 2000, would have spurred Florida’s politicians to make the state the nation’s model for excellence in election administration. But in the past few years state Republicans, from Gov. Rick Scott on down, have worked tirelessly to come up with ways to limit the number of voters — overwhelmingly, Democratic voters – able to cast ballots on November 6. And, with President Obama and Mitt Romney effectively tied for the state’s crucial 29 electoral votes, these restrictions could end up determining who wins the presidency. In 2000, the contest came down to 537 votes; the number of people who may already have been left out of the process or will be by election day dwarfs that number many times over.

In 2011, Republican Gov. Rick Scott and a compliant GOP-dominated state legislature passed a law limiting early voting to a maximum of 96 hours over eight days. One effect of this was to eliminate early voting the Sunday before the election Why is that significant? African-American churches, it is well known, have made a tradition of going as a congregation to early voting sites to vote on that day.  In 2008, early voting lasted a total of 120 hours over 14 days and African Americans utilized it in huge numbers: 54 percent of Florida’s black voters, overwhelmingly Obama supporters, voted early — twice the rate of white voters — and Obama won Florida.

A clue to Republican thinking was provided by a state senator, Michael Bennett, who made this argument in support of the early-voting law:  “We all want everybody to vote. But we want an informed voter…. Voting is a privilege. How easy should it be? … Why would we make it any easier? I want ’em to fight for it. I want ’em to know what it’s like. I want them to go down there, and have to walk across town to go over and vote.”

The U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. recently rejected the early voting change in the five counties covered by the Voting Rights Act, which requires that either the Department of Justice or the D.C. Court approve election changes in jurisdictions with a history of discrimination before they are implemented.  The judge ruled that the changes would have the effect of keeping minorities from going to the polls. A compromise has been reached with respect to those five counties, but the rule remains in place for most of the state.  It is unclear how much that will reduce turnout, but chances are it will be by more than 537 votes.