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Why Shortening Florida’s Voting Time Impacts People of Color

Posted: Sep 26, 2012

MIAMI -- A federal judge this week has allowed Florida’s reduction of its early voting period -- from 14 days to eight -- to stand.

“In early voting, we saw more people of color -- African Americans and Latinos -- voting during early voting periods than their white counterparts,” Eddie Hailes, Jr. said of past elections, “but in many states, including Florida, the effort has been to eliminate that last Sunday before the election.”

Hailes, general counsel with the Advancement Project, a civil rights and racial justice organization, spoke at a symposium hosted last week by New America Media for a cohort of Miami’s ethnic media keenly interested in the case.

Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act nearly 50 years ago and subsequent laws, like the National Voter Registration Act, designed to bring more people into the electoral process, Hailes said the expansion of the voting franchise is being thwarted by persons and partisan interests who wish to place “structural disenfranchisement barriers” in front of the American people. Those parties calculate that by placing such barriers they have a better chance of accomplishing their political objectives.

“When you eliminate that last Sunday, you decrease the opportunity for many people to cast ballots,” Hailes said, noting that the “Souls to the Polls” campaigns conducted by African-American churches to organize rides to the voting booths had been especially effective in assisting the elderly.

When combined with legislation that shorten voter registration periods, photo ID laws passed in and since 2010, and other strategies that will likely reduce voter turnout, Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez, senior attorney and director of Advancement Project Voter Protection, said, “I haven’t seen anything as bad as this year. There is an unprecedented wave of restrictive voting laws that have a discriminatory and disparate impact on African Americans and Latinos.”

The Advancement Project released a report early this week that detailed barriers that seem to be especially designed to target Latino voters who now constitute over 10 percent of America’s eligible voters, though only eight percent of those registered.

Though Florida is not among the states that have passed a recent photo ID law, it is attempting to pioneer the use of the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) database to remove non-citizens from its voting rolls. Culliton-Gonzalez, who explained her organization’s challenge to the use of SAVE for that purpose, said since Florida started its attempted purge of alleged non-citizens this year, several states have followed suit. As many as 15 states have requested SAVE data.

“Across the United States, since 2000, there have been only 56 allegations of non-citizens ever being registered [to vote], much less voting,” Culliton-Gonzalez said. “It’s an infinitesimal amount.”

This year, Florida’s alleged non-citizen purge first attempted to compare the immigrants’ names on driver’s licenses to names on its registered voter lists. A match would presume a non-citizen was registered to vote. The state sent letters to 180,000 registered voters demanding that they contact the state within 30 days to prove their citizenship or be stricken from the rolls. Culliton-Gonzales estimated that over 80 percent of the recipients were people of color and 50 percent were Latino. She said in Miami-Dade County, 98 percent of the 527 people who received letters have already proven they are citizens.

The state’s purge effort ignored the practical reality that legal immigrants typically seek a driver’s license first and then, at a later date, complete the process of becoming a naturalized American citizen, Culliton-Gonzalez explained. Advancement Project, in partnership with six other organizations and two individual plaintiffs – one a Nicaraguan American, the other a Haitian American -- successfully challenged the state in court.

The use of the SAVE database to determine an eligible voter presents problems of a different nature from use of a driver’s license, but share a common potential fault -- a name can be inaccurately recorded. Married women, who have yet to correct their last name, or individuals who may use a middle initial on one ID but not on another, for example, are among the persons who could be misidentified using either list.

Culliton-Gonzalez noted that even if Florida was correct in its claim that by using SAVE it had uncovered 20 non-U.S. citizens, or .000164 percent, of the state’s 11 million registered voters. She questioned whether the intimidation of legally registered voters was worth the cost to the greater goal of fostering democracy when contrasted against Florida’s claims, which are only hypothetical since identified individuals have the right to appeal the findings.

Advancement Project is a non-partisan organization and Culliton-Gonzalez concurred with Hailes that her organization decries the manipulation of the voting system by politicians. In Florida, she noted that past voting purges have targeted ex-felon voters with a “discriminatory impact and disparate impact” on African-American voters who in large part vote Democratic.

Carolyn Thompson, Advancement Project’s Florida voter protection advocate, said, “[Former] Gov. Crist made restoration of rights legal. Therefore, if a person had a felony conviction and had served their time and paid restitution, their rights were immediately restored. As soon as this governor [Rick Scott] came into office, the first law he passed was to restrict the rights of persons with previous felony convictions and made it more difficult for them to restore their rights.” Thompson said, “Seventy thousand persons with previous felony convictions who had got their rights restored voted in 2008.”

Prior to that, Culliton-Gonzalez said, Latinos comprised only six percent of ex-felons in Florida and that the state was on record admitting that it did not use restrictive measures in attempts to minimize the number of its Latino voters in past elections because “they knew Latinos would vote Republican.” Now, however, she said the demographics of the state’s Latino population have changed. “A million Puerto Ricans have moved to central Florida” and they tend to vote Democratic, she observed, and “many [other] Latinos have changed their minds” about voting the GOP ticket, as the 2008 election showed.

Media in attendance had questions about the types of ID Florida required; the impending early-voting decision; and if they should encourage the use of absentee ballots among their communities. A critical concern was whether such organizations as Advancement Project would be able to live assistance at the polls to counteract the expected challenges from True the Vote or its affiliate organizations. Those groups have promised a heightened presence at the polls on November 6 to forestall what they claim will be large instances of voting fraud.

Advancement Project speakers said their staff would be present in the state as they were since the organization first rose to national prominence in 2000 during the aftermath of the contested election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. “Our people were on the ground immediately after the election,” Hailes said, “obtaining, securing evidence of discrimination in communities of color that persons in communities of color were less likely to have their votes counted than their white, wealthier counterparts.”

Thompson said it was important for media to tell voters, if they need assistance, to seek out poll workers. “Poll workers are our community members. We reflect who poll workers are. They’re mothers, they’re grandmothers, they’re secretaries, speak to poll workers if there is an issue.”

Thompson stressed that media should encourage voters to stand their ground once at the polls. She said media should let voters know, “if you are correctly registered to vote, you should vote with confidence.”

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