Crowd demanding voting rights swells to 200 in downtown Tampa

03/06/13 Janelle Irwin
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Two hundred activists crowded Gaslight Square in downtown Tampa Tuesday to demand comprehensive changes to Florida’s voting law. The march and rally was one of 22 across the state asking for new laws that will ensure Florida doesn’t fall victim to long lines at the polls again.

The Florida legislature passed a sweeping voting law in 2011 claiming their intent was to stamp out voter fraud. But critics like Hillsborough County teacher Woodrow Samuel argue it contributed to long lines at the polls.

“She went to one precinct and the line was out the door, wrapped around the building, into the parking lot. So she went to another precinct. The line was out the door, wrapped around the building, into the parking lot. She went to a third precinct … so she went to one more precinct and guess what she found. We don’t even need to do it again do we?

Those lines thrust Florida into the national spotlight in November. Floridians were still voting well into the night. The lines even got a mention from President Barack Obama during his election night speech. So now critics from across the state, like Awake Tampa’s Mike Long, are demanding lawmakers do something about it.

“We demand they support extending early voting days back to 14 days and allow 12-hours of voting per day. We also demand they give Supervisors of Elections more flexibility in choosing early voting sites in addition to the sites they’re allowed to choose now. We also demand that they require a minimum number of early voting sites per population in a county so that we don’t get set up like Pinellas does where they have three early voting sites for almost a million people. We want to make sure we free our ballot so we don’t have any unnecessary and overly long constitutional amendments on the ballot.”

Individuals who want to put a measure on a ballot are limited to 75-words. Legislators are not. The 2012 ballot contained 11 constitutional amendments – some of which were hundreds of words long. Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer is imploring lawmakers to limit ballot language.

“That’s why we had the lengths that we had. You may not know it, but there was actually one of the amendments that was thrown off the ballot by a judge because it was confusing – it was over 900 words. We need to limit it to 75 words for everybody. Let’s put a level playing field out there.”

And Joyce Henry Hamilton, director of the ACLU’s mid-Florida regional office wants the legislature to make it easier for young people, seniors and prior felons to vote.

“We are talking about individuals who have served their time, are back in the community – good productive citizens who have been disenfranchised. There are over 1.6 million individuals in Florida who have lost the right to vote.”

As Hamilton described the millions of Floridians who can’t vote because of past convictions, a man on the corner watching from a distance raised his hand and nodded in agreement. Frank said he’s been living on the streets since serving his prison sentence and hasn’t been able to vote for years. He added he was told it would be another ten to twelve years before his rights would be restored.

“They gave me five years. I did the five years. They gave me more than that. I did my time, but how you going to take twenty years from me?

Florida’s voting laws also created some hurdles for college students trying to vote. Luis Silva is a recent graduate of USF. He wants lawmakers to consider allowing polling places on college campuses.

“I think the closest voting sites to USF were over on 15th on the other side of the mall or on 22nd on the other side of the mall in Temple Terrace. So, a lot of our students don’t have access to that because they live on campus, they stay on campus, they ride the Bull Runner and it does not go in that direction.”

The 2011 voting measure was held back in five Florida counties which have a history of discrimination, including Hillsborough County. In those counties, changes to voting laws require approval by either the Department of Justice or be approved by a United States District Court. The ACLU’s Hamilton said the group pleaded with Governor Scott to not sign the bill into law.

“And then we also told them, if you sign it, which he did, you need to pre-clear it with the Department of Justice. They didn’t listen. They waited until the last minute to finally submit it to the DOJ and then when DOJ was about to make a decision regarding whether it passed the test regarding section five of the voting rights act, they yanked it from the DOJ and submit it to a three-judge panel for review. And what they found was that there were dimensions of HB 1355 that were unconstitutional.”

The ruling overturned a provision which imposed a 48 hour deadline for submitting third party voter registrations and harsh fines if the deadline wasn’t met. The provision was so daunting, groups like the League of Women voters and many others chose not to hold registration drives.

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Oh the humanity! A whopping .0002% of Hillsborough's outraged voters showed up to parrot the demands of the Democratic Party of Florida. Heck, that's only .0006% of the Democratic voters in Hillsborough County. Much ado about nothing.