Florida voting woes land on agenda of U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

12/05/12 Janelle Irwin
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Six members of Florida’s Democratic Congressional delegation sent a letter to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights last week asking them to investigate the state’s voting law. The move comes after investigative reports showed former leaders of the state Republican Party accused lawmakers of passing voting legislation with the sole intent of suppressing groups of voters who lean Democratic. Tampa Bay area Representative Kathy Castor is one of the people leading the push.

“This has really taken a darker turn because there are serious racial undertones. We know from what some of the sources have said that this was intended to discourage African Americans and other minorities from voting when we know those constituencies usually vote Democratic. So this is very troubling that they would undermine and suppress votes and now it goes further than what happened in passage of the law. It appears that it was a coordinated effort at the upper levels of the Republican Party of Florida.”

Republican legislators who backed tightening Florida’s voting law claimed they were trying to stamp out voter fraud. But according to the Palm Beach Post, former head of the Florida GOP Jim Greer said the true intent was to suppress Democratic voter turnout. The Post said Greer’s claims were supported by former Republican Governor Charlie Crist. At a press conference last month in response to long lines at the polls during early voting and on Election Day, Crist called for sweeping reforms to the voting law Florida passed in 2011.

“What I saw in Miami Gardens during early voting and Miami-Dade County and also in Aventura, were lines where people were waiting four, five, six hours and it’s just unconscionable that in our democracy today that that would happen.

Crist didn’t respond to requests for an interview that were sent to his email address at his employer Morgan and Morgan. The law was easily passed by the Republican supermajority and signed by Governor Rick Scott in 2011. It cut early voting days from 14 to 8 and eliminated the Sunday before Election Day which previously had the largest turnout of African American voters. That provision of the law was upheld by the Department of Justice. So now Democrats, including Congress member Kathy Castor are putting their faith in the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to do something about it.

“The benefit of having the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigate it is they have the ability to subpoena witnesses and documents. They can travel to Florida and conduct interviews.”

The Commission will discuss the Florida law at a meeting in Washington, D.C. on Friday. The commission’s chair, Martin Castro said if at least five of the eight commissioners approve moving forward with an investigation the board will eventually recommend action to the President and Congress.

“Those findings would create a report which would require five votes, at least five votes to be approved as a report from the commission and often times there are proposed revisions that commissioners make to the draft before we vote on it. In addition, at the end of that report there are findings and recommendations that the commission makes. Those again, each individual finding and each individual recommendation must receive, at a minimum, five votes in order to be included in the report.”

What the recommendations would be depends on the investigation and individual members of the commission who are appointed by the President and Congress. And whatever they end up recommending isn’t enforceable. Regardless, Castro said the commission has enough pull to make something happen.

“And certainly it makes a difference when a federal agency brings the actors involved in something before it and prepares responses and recommendations to the President and Congress on this. Our recommendations to Congress in the past and to the President have had important weight – of course not on every subject that we study, but on important subjects such as this we have played an important role in voting rights.”

Castro said he hopes the commission will approve investigating the law. And his colleague, Commissioner Michael Yaki, agrees. Yaki is a vocal proponent of voting rights. During the 2008 presidential election he canvassed Florida to make sure no one was being disenfranchised and surveyed county Supervisors of Elections to find out what changes needed to be made to voting procedures.

“I think it’s accurate to say a lot of states where there are – where legislatures and the executor are controlled by a single party feel that they have the ability to enact laws that, in the case of Florida, are expressly designed to suppress turnout amongst minority communities, amongst senior communities, amongst the poor and that is wrong – I think it’s unconstitutional.”

Now Yaki is calling on federalizing presidential elections to ensure that laws like the one in Florida aren’t an issue anymore. That process would be similar to a bill proposed by Senator Barbara Boxer today in that it would create a streamlined set of rules for all states to follow. But unlike the proposal from the California Senator, federalizing national elections would create a non-partisan body overseeing the process. Yaki said that would solve more problems than just long lines.

“I think as more and more people start paying attention to the horror stories that started coming out about people finding out that they went to the polls after having been registered for decades and not being in there, people being told that they didn’t exist, etc., I think it’s clear that we have to do something about it.”

Florida was the last to call a presidential winner for their state. That problem was blamed not just on long lines at polling places where some voters didn’t even cast their ballot until after midnight, but also on the fact that there weren’t enough early voting opportunities, polling places and staff to help voters. The problem is something Congress member Kathy Castor thinks could be at least partially solved by amending the state’s voting law.

“How embarrassing was it for the state of Florida to still be counting votes a week after the election had been decided? Really, didn’t we learn our lesson in 2000? Voting in Florida needs to be convenient, it needs to be available … it became apparent that what they did to - what the Republicans in the legislature did to complicate voting had no grounding in reality.”

Republicans in the state legislature continue to defend the voting law but are still investigating problems during last month’s election.

Previous WMNF coverage of the 2011 law

Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist spoke out against Florida's voting law at a press conference with Democrats last month:

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