Gihan Perera and Maria Rodriguez: Let’s not put new limits on voting

April 24, 2013 —

Despite all that went wrong in Florida during the 2012 elections, there were also moving displays of determination that inspired. Latino voters throughout the state made a historic showing at the polls. In response to the elimination of the last Sunday of early voting, African-American churches doubled down on their “Souls to the Polls” campaign — an initiative that’s been especially helpful for elderly voters, who receive mobility assistance from church volunteers — making history with a larger-than-ever early voting turnout.

If Florida’s omnibus elections bill passes, however, some of these Cubans, Puerto Ricans, other Latinos and Haitian-American citizens are likely to have a harder time voting. A recent amendment to the legislation, tucked in by Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, threatens to change the rules for voters who require help at the polls, including the elderly and people who do not speak English as their primary language. The proposed modifications would create new barriers specifically for these vulnerable citizens.

Under current Florida law — and under the federal Voting Rights Act — voters who need assistance at the polls may bring somebody into the voting booth. This right also extends to people with disabilities, those who are visually impaired, and voters who are unable to read or fully understand complex ballot language. Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act expressly allows voters to make their own choice about whom to bring with them, to ensure that they are comfortable with the process and can have a meaningful voice.

Sen. Latvala’s amendment interferes with this federally protected right by doing two things. First, in order to receive help, the voter would be required to know the assistor before the day the vote is cast. In a one-two punch of voter suppression, the amendment also limits the number of voters whom an assistor may help to no more than 10 during any election.

Voters who don’t understand how a machine works, or do not know how to read and write in English, should never feel that they cannot ask for help. Yet these provisions essentially tell citizens that, if they don’t have an assistor available whom they personally know, or if someone they do know has already helped 10 others, then they’re on their own. This is unnecessary, unacceptable and undermines the essence of our democracy.

The omnibus bill has especially dire consequences for communities of color, such as Latino and Haitian-American citizens who routinely depend on language assistance from community-based poll monitors and voter protection advocates. During the 2012 early voting, for example, SEIU 1199 trained 20 volunteers to provide Creole translation help in South Florida — assisting approximately 4,000 voters in the end.

But even with the number of voters they were able to help, the demand for language and literary assistance still exceeded what volunteers and election staff could provide. Had there been an arbitrary limit of 10 voters per translator, or a baseless requirement for them to know each other beforehand, these policies would have resulted in thousands of disenfranchised voters, overburdened election staff and longer lines for everybody.

Year after year, we see barriers erected to voting in Florida. It is time to stop these tactics with bold, forward-looking measures that ensure all eligible citizens can cast a ballot — it’s time to get politicians out of the way and enshrine the fundamental right to vote into state law.

We are joined by a broad coalition — including Advancement Project, Mi Familia Vota, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Progress Florida, the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, among others — who also want to enshrine an affirmative right to vote.

At the very least, the Legislature must withdraw the amendment that limits voting assistors from the omnibus election bill. Voting is the one time when we are all equal. This is the American dream. Whether rich or poor, young or old, and regardless of what language a person speaks, we all have the same power when we enter the voting booth. Our lawmakers should want voters in need to have more support, not less, for exercising their right.

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