The roots of modern-day voter suppression is buried in Florida, and it grew and blossomed during the 2000 presidential elections. “Florida is the state where awareness of how serious flaws in elections administration could result in voters being disenfranchised developed,” said Marcia Johnson-Blanco, coordinator, Voting Rights Project, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
The critical role of Florida in deciding the presidential contest between Republican candidate George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, and the narrow margin by which the outcome was decided shined a global-sized spotlight on the state, revealing several election irregularities. Before the elections, state officials decided to purge the voter list of duplicate registrations, deceased voters, and people believed to be ex-felons – the state is distinguished by its permanent felon disenfranchisement policy. However, thousands of eligible voters’ names were scrubbed in the process, and 88 percent of the voters removed were African-American.
“A lot of their data was inaccurate,” said political analyst David Bositis, an expert on Black politics. “And it [the purging process] was not carefully done to avoid making mistakes.”
In addition, there were an unusually high number of “overvotes,” or choices of more than one candidate for the same position, especially in predominantly African-American precincts in Duval County. As in Palm Beach County, with its infamous “butterfly ballots,” the Duval County ballots had a confusing layout and misleading instructions.
The bungled election drew much criticism and legal action from the NAACP, who sued Florida’s then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris and other state and local officials, alleging that their actions during the elections violated the Voting Rights Act. In particular, Harris, who was in charge of state election procedures, raised eyebrows due to her position as a Bush state campaign co-chairman, her role in the scrub list and her actions during the recount of votes. The complaint was settled in July 2002 and included an agreement that the exception lists would be re-processed.
The failed 2000 elections was a ripe opportunity for Florida to enact elections reform that would make participation in the American democracy easier, Johnson-Blanco said, but it chose to take another direction. “Unfortunately, what we see since 2000 is this concerted effort by the state to make it harder to vote,” she said. “You look forward to now and the problems [of 2000] still exist.”
Out of the 2000 debacle Election Protection, a coalition of national groups led by the Lawyers’ Committee and the largest voter protection and education effort in the nation, was born. The necessity of such efforts is still evident in Florida, today, Johnson-Blanco said.
In 2011, Florida’s majority-Republican legislature – following a similar pattern set by other GOP-dominant legislatures and governor’s mansions in the wake of the 2010 midterm elections – enacted HB 1355, a 158-page omnibus elections bill. Among other things, the bill proscribed the voter registration activities of community groups because its onerous requirements were difficult to comply with, changed ballot length restrictions, and reduced early voting days from 14 to eight.
As a result of the legislation, groups like the League of Women Voters suspended voter registration drives for the first time in decades; and voters were forced to stand in long lines or abandoned voting altogether and had to endure one of the most chaotic elections in the nation in 2012.
While Republican proponents claimed the legislation was meant to combat voter fraud, former GOP leaders and GOP strategists admitted it was meant to hamstring and deter Blacks and other voters that tend to vote Democrat.
Former Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer and former Gov. Charlie Crist, both ousted from the GOP, told The Palm Beach Post that at strategy meetings beginning in 2009 – after the historic turnouts among African Americans, especially, that netted Barack Obama the White House in 2008 – Republican staffers and consultants began pushing for contractions in early voting. Wayne Bertsch, a local and legislative campaign consultant for Republicans, backed up that claim. “In the races I was involved in in 2008, when we started seeing the increase of turnout and the turnout operations that the Democrats were doing in early voting, it certainly sent a chill down our spines,” Bertsch told the Post.
“In 2008, it didn’t have the impact that we were afraid of. It got close, but it wasn’t the impact that they had this election cycle,” he added, referring to Democratic gains in 2012 despite the early voting limitations.
The Lawyers’ Committee and other civil rights groups donned their boxing gloves again. “Luckily, we were able to push back,” Johnson-Blanco said.
The law was challenged and a federal judge nullified most of the provisions related to voter registration organizations. The Department of Justice – under authority of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act – also waged a successful challenge against the law, arguing that curtailing early voting and other provisions unfairly targeted minorities and deprived them of their rights.
Republican officials seemed undeterred, however, and took another bite at the apple. Crist’s successor, Gov. Rick Scott (R), instigated a major effort to purge up to 180,000 purported non-citizens from the voting rolls. But the lists of names – many Hispanic-sounding – were found to be riddled with error and many citizens found themselves wrongly swept up in the pogrom. The initiative drew an avalanche of legal challenges from the Department of Justice, who called it illegal, and other groups who deemed it discriminatory.
On Sept. 26, Scott announced plans to resume the purge with a greatly reduced list of potential noncitizens for removal, but was again stymied by the courts. The June 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby v. Holder, however, may have loosened the reins on Scott and others intent on pursuing measures that could potentially deprive Americans of their right to vote.
“It’s been surprisingly quiet recently …, we have not been aware of any new legislation being contemplated. But, Florida has a track record of consistently pushing for these restrictive laws,” Johnson-Blanco said. “One can only hope that the pushback from civil rights groups and the legal losses they’ve experienced will deter those efforts and that they will focus on fixing the problems in elections administration.”
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