April 16, 2013 –
(Tallahassee, FL) – A broad coalition of groups from the civil rights, legal, labor and immigrant communities have joined forces to oppose an amendment to the Florida Senate omnibus elections bill that would change the rules for voters who require assistance at the polls. Currently, these citizens – including many Florida voters who are elderly, voters with disabilities, voters WHO are visually impaired, voters who do not speak English as their primary language, and voters who are unable to read and fully understand complex ballot language – may bring an assistor of their choice with them into the voting booth.
Under an amendment to Senate Bill 600, originally introduced last week by Florida Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Sen. Jack Latvala, voters would be required to know their assistor before the day they vote. The amendment, which also limits the number of people whom an assistor may help to 10 voters during any given election, survived legislative attempts to remove the language by Sen. Oscar Braynon during initial deliberations on Tuesday.
“We once thought that the worst thing about SB 600 was that it didn’t go far enough in protecting our fundamental right to vote. However, with the addition of Senator’s Latvala’s recent amendment, the Florida Legislature once again risks deliberately limiting the resources that are legally guaranteed to voters,’’ said Florida New Majority Executive Director Gihan Perera. “After today, what we have is a bill that partly violates Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act and attacks the good faith efforts of ministers, churches and other respected community membership organizations to help the elderly, the disabled, non-English speakers and other citizens exercise their civic duty to vote. Hopefully, it is a bill that will be changed, once Senators know the full extent of the damage that could be done if passed.”
SKIRTING AROUND THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT
In a letter delivered to Sen. Latvala on Tuesday, the groups – Florida New Majority, Advancement Project, American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Florida State Conference of the NAACP, Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, Latino Justice PRLDEF, Progress Florida, the Jacksonville Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and SEIU Florida – called on him to withdraw his amendment, detailing how it would restrict ballot access for some of Florida’s most vulnerable citizens.
The amendment would also impair the work of organizations whose volunteers routinely assist Florida voters in need during elections. During the 2012 elections, these voter protection advocates addressed last-minute problems and generally helped far more than 10 voters, whether or not they knew them before that day.
“If a voter needs assistance deciphering a complex ballot initiative, or does not know how to read and write in English, they should never feel that they cannot ask for help,” said Perera. “Yet this amendment essentially tells citizens that if they don’t have an assistor whom they personally know available, then they’re on their own. This violates the essence of our democracy.”
The coalition further argued that Sen. Latvala’s amendment contravenes Section 208 of the Voting Rights act, which expressly gives voters the right to make their own choice of who to bring into the voting booth. The provision was added in 1982 to protect voters who need assistance to cast their ballot.
“Many Florida voters used assistors at the polls last year, and most of those assistors helped more than 10 people,” said Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis. “At the State of the Union address, President Obama highlighted the inspiring story of Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old North Miami woman who stood in line for three hours to cast her ballot. But Ms. Victor also relied on translation help from an assistor in the community who could speak her native Creole language. Without that vital assistance, Ms. Victor’s fundamental right to vote would have been denied.”
In 2012, SEIU Florida alone helped approximately 4,000 voters with translation and literacy assistance during early voting in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. “Despite the number of voters we were able to help, the demand for language and literacy assistance still exceeded what community-provided translators and election staff could provide,” said SEIU Florida President Monica Russo. “An arbitrary limitation of 10 voters per translator would have resulted in thousands more voters being disenfranchised, higher burdens for election staff, and longer lines for all voters.”
“We are deeply disappointed by Senator Jack Latvala’s amendment to place undue burdens on minority voters, particularly when this action is not compliant with Section 208 of the federal Voting Rights Act,” said Jean Robert LaFortune, President of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition. “This action will definitely place unnecessary voting obstacles for Haitian-Americans, and it may push Florida back to an era when politicians decided who should, or should not, exercise their right to vote.”
“Community-based poll workers and voter protection advocates are often a citizen’s last line of defense against intimidation, trickery and deceptive practices designed to keep them from voting,” said Cynthia Slater, Chair of Civic Engagement for the Florida State Conference of the NAACP. “There is no reason to keep these important volunteers from assisting any number of voters who need help.”
“This is just another in a long line of attempts to make it harder for Latino and other voters to participate in the election process, “said Juan Cartagena, President and General Counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “The last election in Florida taught us that people want to vote, and officials should be doing everything possible to make the voting process accessible.”
“The amendment represents yet another method of suppressing the vote in the state of Florida,” said Reginald Gundy, President of the Jacksonville Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “It’s unnecessary, discriminatory and has no merit – but it does have the dire consequence of keeping people who need assistance from being able to cast a ballot. Putting arbitrary limits on who can provide voting help will only create confusion at the polls, especially for minorities, seniors and people with disabilities.”