Recent years have seen an assault on the rights of voters across the country, from stringent identification requirements to the throwing away of valid voter registration applications. While most states are seeing only one or two of the variety of assaults on the rights of voters, Florida, as it has in the past, is leading the way in different ways of denying legitimate citizens their right to vote.
A key tactic is a purge of the voter rolls, ordered by Gov. Rick Scott, that would have removed thousands of eligible voters from the rolls, much as a similar purge did in 2000, when it likely cost Al Gore the presidency. Scott said the purge was necessary to prevent non-citizens from voting, despite the fact that there is little to no evidence of a significant number of ineligible voters attempting to cast a ballot. The U.S. Department of Justice ordered the purge halted, as early reports showed that most of the people on the lists were actually legal voters. The courts later allowed some of the purge to go through, although most local supervisors of elections refused to comply, with the exceptions of Lee and Collier counties.
Since Scott became governor, Florida has had the most punitive rules for disenfranchising former felons, requiring five to seven years without committing any crimes before a clemency hearing can be held to restore the right to vote. Former Gov. Charlie Crist restored the rights of nearly 6,000 former felons in his last year in office. In Rick Scott's first year, the restorations fell to 200. And while that would be enough to make the state notable in the denial of the franchise, that's only the beginning of the story.
In 2011, Scott signed a bill that reworked the rules for voting and registering new voters. The new law put severe restrictions upon those who gather new voter registration applications, including fines of up to $1,000 per year for those who did not turn in new applications within an unrealistic 48 hours. A number of activist organizations, such as the League of Women Voters (LWV), decided not to register voters any more out of fear of the new fines. The restrictions were punitive enough that the courts blocked them and the LWV and others began voter registration again afterward.
More significantly, the state reduced the number of early voting days that counties can offer and eliminated early voting on the Sunday before the official Election Day. Early voting is popular in Florida, with more than half of all voters using the option in 2008. The numbers were even higher for African Americans. Defenders of the new law say that the law does not cut back on the total number of hours that early voting can be offered, but since the final decision is left up to individual counties (except five counties that have had historic problems with discrimination and have to get approval from the Justice Department to any changes to voting laws), counties can reduce the number of hours if they so choose. Other than the five counties that need approval, the other 62 counties in the state are allowed to set hours anywhere between a minimum of 48 and a maximum of 96 total hours of early voting. Only 35 of the 67 total counties offer the maximum of 96 hours, meaning the other 42 counties cut back on hours.
"We do have a net reduction in overall early voting hours," said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political scientist who analyzes state election laws. "That is a concern to me, and it was a concern to the Justice Department, too."
The Sunday before the election also was notable for the fact that it historically had seen a high turnout of minority voters. According to Dara Lindenbaum of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the shortening of early voting hours is significant because it will lead to longer lines and more voters deciding it is not worth the effort to wait to vote, particularly with a long ballot this year that can be as lengthy as six to 10 pages. The longer lines and longer ballot is likely to lead to frustrated poll workers who are more likely to make mistakes. If a line is long at the end of Election Day, anyone in line before 7 p.m. is legally allowed to vote, but there are reports every year of individual precincts who refuse to allow people to vote because they haven't done so before polls close, even if they had waited in line for hours.
The law also prevents voters who already are registered to update their address at the polls if they have moved to another county. This change now means that those who have moved and did not update their registration in advance will be required to cast provisional ballots, which delays the tallying of ballots. According to Lindenbaum, these votes should be counted as long as the voter is properly registered. If voters have moved, they should be able to easily update their address by calling the supervisor of elections office in their new county. In order to make sure the provisional ballot is counted, she says, voters should vote in their new polling location.
A few other tactics that have been popping up across the state are not directed by government officials. Multiple counties have received reports and copies of fraudulent letters that question the voting status of individuals, warning them that voting when they are not registered could lead to them being put in prison. To date, the local supervisors of elections have been diligent about getting the word out about the accuracy of the letters. A number of reports also mention people calling their home and offering them the option of voting by phone. Lindenbaum said, “One woman who received the call knew it was a scam but said if her elderly parents received it they would have believed it and been thrilled that they didn’t have to wait in line to vote anymore.”
Those who are victims of any of these tactics or who want to check their registration can call 1-866-OUR-VOTE to report problems or ask questions.
The AFL-CIO My Vote, My Right website offers hands-on information on voter registration, voter ID laws and steps to take to protect your right to vote on Election Day. Find out what you need to know to make sure your vote counts this year. Get information on voter registration, your voting rights by state and more at the AFL-CIO’s MyVoteMyRight.org.