VRA PANEL DISCUSSION RICHMOND HEIGHTS – 2013-7-11
Future of Florida’s Franchise Focus of Forum
Story by José Pérez
Late last month, State Representative Kionne McGhee (D-117) organized a panel discussion to talk about the recent Supreme Court ruling that effectively eviscerated the protections contained in the 1965 the Voting Rights Act as well as emerging voting legislation and right restoration for ex-offenders in Florida. The discussion, which was open to the public and held at Martin Memorial AME Church in Richmond Heights, featured an all-star roster of panelists.
Late last month, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a key element in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the so-called “coverage formula,” was unconstitutional. That formula was used to determine which states required permission from the federal government before those states could enact changes to voting laws and/or procedures. By essentially invalidating a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, the high court has opened the proverbial door for states make changes to election laws with no clearance from Washington, D.C. needed.
The case against the Voting Rights Act was based on the argument that, because African-Americans are voting and holding office in record numbers including in the South, the landmark legislation was no longer relevant.
One prominent member of the High Court disagreed. In an interview with the Associated Press, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said doing away with the VRA was "like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet."
In his opening remarks, McGhee insisted that, according to the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, “you cannot take away a person’s right to vote” but followed with a question.
“Is the 10th Amendment more important than the 15th Amendment?” The 10th Amendment states that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Thus, the question for McGhee, the panelists, and the approximately 40 people that were present in the pews of Martin Memorial centered on the validity of states in general and Florida in particular to enact voting laws that ran contrary to the wording and spirit of the 15th Amendment and its protections of suffrage for citizens.
The discussion began with historical perspective on the Voting Rights Act. Howard Simon, Executive Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said that the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was “the heart and soul of what the Civil Rights Movement achieved.”
Simon drew attention to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act which focused on states with a history of discrimination, virtually all of which are in the Southeastern United States, comprising what had once been the heart of the seditious Confederate States of America. That section, Simon said, stipulated that no changes can be made to voting laws in those states without approval from the Department of Justice. According to Simon, approximately 700 potentially discriminatory voting practices were blocked by the DOJ under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
With oppressive obstacles to voting such poll taxes and literacy tests removed under compulsion from the federal government, the VRA afforded many African-Americans and even poor whites the opportunity to cast ballots throughout the South. “It literally changed the face of the South,” said Simon
The NAACP’s Bradford Brown, who along with Simon worked as an activist in Alabama over a half century ago, said that the 15th Amendment was essentially “voting rights enforcement.”
Donald Jones, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Miami’s law school, said that the judicial decision – split with a 5-4 decision among its Justices – was “backlash” from not just electing a Black man to be president of the United States but doing so twice.
Almost immediately after the Supreme Court’s ruling, some previously affected states acted on it. Texas announced that it would move forward with executing a voter identification law that was passed in Austin in 2011 but was blocked by the Department of Justice. Mississippi said that a similar law would go into effect in time for next summer’s primaries while leaders in North Carolina promised an expedited process with their own voter ID bill which was passed last week
In turn, the Department of Justice launched a legal counterattack with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder vowing to focus first on Texas utilizing elements of the Voting Rights Act left unchanged by the landmark decision. Specifically, Holder is pinning his hopes on the belief that Section 3(c) can make up for what is no longer available to DOJ officials in Section 4(b). Holder said the DOJ plans “to fully utilize the [Voting Rights Act’s] remaining sections to ensure that the voting rights of all American citizens are protected."
The Attorney General is not alone in pursuing the 3(c) avenue in the Lone Star state. In a suit filed last week in Texas, a group of Latino Texans argued that "because the State of Texas is no longer subject to the preclearance provisions of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act through the formula in Section 4(b), Section 3(c) relief is available against the State." According the suit, "Section 3(c) relief is warranted in this case because existing evidence establishes intentional voting discrimination and other proceedings provide overwhelming evidence of constitutional violations in and by the State."
Not everyone, however, is supporting Holder’s moves. "Attorney General Eric Holder proves he is more interested in political stunts than enforcing the law," said Horace Cooper, Co-Chair of Project 21, a conservative African-American think tank, in a written statement.
Maribel Balbin of the League of Women Voters of Miami-Dade County, added that “we were already under siege” in Florida before the Supreme Court’s decision, citing increasingly pitched political and legal battles between her organization and a Republican Party-controlled State Legislature. For example, in 2011, the League of Women Voters sued to get a ten day extension to the existing voter registration period and the very morning of the panel discussion in Richmond Heights, the Florida Supreme Court sided with the League ruling that the Florida Legislature could not bypass trial in a legal fight over concerns of gerrymandering.
ThinkProgress reported that Florida’s on-again, off-again moves to purge voter rolls is officially back on track after a federal appeals court tossed out a suit in response to the Supreme Court's decision. According to AP, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner announced plans to restart the voter roll purge. This comes just two months after Florida Govenor Rick Scott signed a bill that brought back some early voting days which he advocated removing just a couple of years earlier.
The Palm Beach Post published a story last week in which Jim Greer, a former leading member of the Florida Republican Party said that those same voter purge initiatives were motivated more by fear of Democratic electoral victories than any concern over voting fraud.
“The Republican Party, the strategists, the consultants, they firmly believe that early voting is bad for Republican Party candidates,” Greer said to The Post. “It’s done for one reason and one reason only: ‘We’ve got to cut down on early voting because early voting is not good for us.’ ”
The Post also reported that a GOP campaign consultant, Wayne Bertsch, was aware of the same hidden agenda. “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."
For Balbin, the remedy for the sudden lifting of protections against encroachments was simple. “We need strong federal standards.”
According to TruthOut.org, hearings on developing a new formula to determine which areas should be subject to pre-clearance have been held in Congress but added that there is little optimism that anything will be enacted in the near future.
Given the profound worries conveyed by the speakers at the forum, Jones compared the Court’s decision in this matter to the Dred Scott case of the mid-19th century. “This is a court that doesn’t remember our history,” he said. “They have historical amnesia.”
Another problem discussed by the panel concerned the high number of Floridians are not allowed to vote. “One out of every four African-American males in Florida are disenfranchised,” said Desmond Meade, a local activist and law student at Florida International University’s School of Law. Why are so many Black men in Florida not allowed to vote? Convicted felons in Florida lose the right to vote and, in this area, it ranks number one. “Florida leads nation in disenfranchisement,” Meade said.
Felon disenfranchisement dates back to 1868 to uphold institution of white power in Tallahassee, added Simon.
The problem is huge, said panelists. Meade reported that “1.5 million people in Florida are ‘returning citizens,’” using that strength-based term as an alternative to the more commonly-used “ex-felons.”
Most returning citizens are disenfranchised for non-violent offenses (such as trapping an under-sized lobster, disturbing a sea turtle’s nest, et cetera). When they are released from prison, returning citizens in Florida cannot vote, cannot run for office, and, in the case of Meade who is himself a returning citizen, cannot sit for the state bar examination.
While it is possible for a disenfranchised Floridian to have his or her rights restored, it is a daunting and often fruitless process. Typically, a returning citizen must wait between 5 to 7 years before he can apply to have his or her rights restored. The application process can take up to six years and, according to Meade, less than 1% actually succeed in having those rights restored. “You might as well be a slave,” lamented Meade, a sentiment echoed by attorney Christopher Benjamin who also served on the panel.
For many Floridians, that amounts - essentially – to a lifetime disenfranchisement which Simon called the “biggest voting scandal in the country.”
Christina White, Acting Chief Deputy Supervisor of Elections for Miami-Dade County, brought voter registration forms as well as forms with which voters could update the signature they have on record with the Elections Department. This is important because in order for an absentee ballot submitted to be valid, the signature on the ballot must match the signature on record with the Elections Department.
Voter turnout for local elections is usually only between 20-30%, said White.
White also talked about HB7013, the Election Reform Bill of 2013 which expands sites that can be used for voting. The Bill also gives local elections supervisors the power to expand early voting days up to 14 days (including the Sunday before an election) at their discretion.
Simon, however, has his doubts. “Your right to vote will depend on which county you live in.” He also pointed out that most of the Black voters that cast their ballot for Barack Obama voted early.
That local aspect to the evening’s discussion was a recurring theme. “A lot of these problems,” pointed out Simon, “are local problems that we can address.” It was because of that that some in attendance were doubly-concerned. “We are in an area where [these issues are] predominant,” said Jerry Alleyne-Nagee of Perrine. “There are a host of people that are suffering but I do not see this room packed up”
For perspective, Meade highlighted the fact that it only took a few million people to get Governor Rick Scott elected in 2010 (2.6 million) and President Obama reelected in 2012 (4.2 million).
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