Déja Vu: New Florida Law Hinders Voting Rights of Blacks, Poor

Déja Vu: New Florida Law Hinders Voting Rights of Blacks, Poor

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Back in 2006, when the 1965 Voting Rights Act was up for renewal, a number of Republican lawmakers protested that its time had passed; that the states and municipalities that once worked to keep blacks away from the polls and locked into second-class citizenry had learned their lesson.

But it’s a lesson in which Florida Gov. Rick Scott and his GOP brethren are sorely in need of remediation.

Recently, Scott signed into law a bill that must be the most blatant attempt at limiting the access of black and poor people to the polls since the days when they were asked to guess how many bubbles were in a bar of soap.

Besides cutting the number of early voting days from 15 to eight, the law bans voters who have moved to a different county from changing their addresses at the polls. Those voters, many of whom tend to be college students and working poor people who move a lot, would have to cast provisional ballots instead.

Numerous studies show that provisional ballots are more likely to be thrown out.

But perhaps the most repressive part of the new law forces third-party groups who register voters to turn in all new registration forms in two days instead of 10. It also requires each person who signs up voters to be registered with the state or face fines that could cost as much as $1,000.

Interestingly enough, black and Latino voters – the ones less likely to vote Republican – are more likely to be registered by third-party groups.

Forcing someone to check in with the state simply to register people to vote is cumbersome and unnecessary – especially since at the end of the day, the validity of those registrations are checked against a statewide database.

Keep in mind that there’s been little or no fraud attached to people who register voters or, for that matter, to any of the practices that the new law is restricting. Making them put their name on some state list for signing people up to vote smacks of a time in which some places posted the names of black people in the newspaper for daring to vote.

This practice exposed them to intimidation by racists.

Because Florida’s new restrictions are designed to keep certain voters away from the polls and are clearly a product of a legislature that has been hostile to voting rights since Florida went blue for Barack Obama in 2008, I wonder if those who help others to vote won’t be subjected to harassment as well.

Ironically, the one thing that might save scores of Florida voters from being inconvenienced away from the polls is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. It requires certain states and municipalities that once disenfranchised minorities to get an OK from the Justice Department to change their voting practices.

Five Florida counties – Collier, Hendry, Hardee, Monroe and Hillsborough – must still seek preclearance. And because of that, and because elections supervisors have estimated that the new law could shrink people’s access to the polls by 50 percent, there’s a good chance it won’t stand.

Yet, just five years ago, some Republicans were ranting that preclearance was no longer needed; that it unfairly stigmatized Southern states who had long since changed their ways.

Rep. Charlie Norwood, a Georgia Republican, and a few other conservatives proposed amendments to eliminate the preclearance requirement. Another Georgia Republican, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, whined that the South was being treated “as if nothing had changed within the last 41 years.”

No doubt, a lot has changed in 41 years. But it was the Voting Rights Act that forced that change, not the goodwill of people who derive their power by keeping certain groups powerless.

The cluelessness of Scott and his GOP compatriots on voting rights teaches another lesson on why the act is still needed. It is needed to stop the reemergence of forces bent on keeping us mired in a past in which certain groups were voiceless and powerless.

And it’s a lesson that underscores why we must be vigilant in seeing to it that that past doesn’t become our future