No Progress without Florida, The Big Hole in the new Voting Rights Act

January 17th, 2014 —

Yesterday a Bi-Partisan group of Senators released a major revision of the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA).  The bill would revise the formula that determines which jurisdictions require pre-clearance from the Department of Justice before instituting new voting rights rules or amending policies.  The new bill features a formula that does NOT cover Florida, or Ohio, or North Carolina, or a number of other states where right wing legislatures have attempted to severely curtail access to voting.

The new bill was hastened by Supreme Court’s striking down portions of the 1964 Voting Rights Act that protected voters in specific counties, cities and states that had a history of discrimination. There were five Florida counties covered by the original VRA. The Supreme Court decision significantly weakened the Voting Rights Act and its enforcement powers just at the moment that many states across the country, and especially in the South, were introducing severe policies to suppress voting rights.  We’ve seen firsthand in Florida that the strategies were targeted especially to suppress Black and Latino voters.   Florida has been ground zero for voting rights abuses for decades, and as recently as this week, the Governor has been pushing a program to purge voters, largely with Latin last names.  Despite these constant and obvious attacks, under the new formula, Florida and a host of other states are NOT protected.

The bipartisan legislation was introduced by Representatives James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), John Conyers (D-MI), Bobby Scott (D-VA), John Lewis (D-GA), and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT).  The Bipartisan support is remarkable. And, the presence and leadership of John Conyers and John Lewis, the revered civil rights legend, reflects that all is not a terrible offering.

Florida New Majority applauds Congress for taking this first step. However, the formula for pre-clearance needs significant improvement.  The formula calls for pre-clearance only in states where there is a track record of judgments against a jurisdiction. This is rare. It is a tall order in states with very conservative judges. Additionally, many of the strategies to effectively counter voter rights abuses resulted in settlements or dissent decrees which under this formula do not count towards a civil rights violation because no trial took place.  The formula needs to reflect and protect the experiences of states like Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and others where the attempt to suppress votes is obvious and frequent but the number of actual judgments are few and far between.

“The proposed legislation falls woefully short of achieving the kind of voter protection that is needed for Florida,” said Florida New Majority Executive Director, Gihan Perera. “While we applaud the leadership and bi-partisan effort there is no real federal voting protection without protecting Florida, the poster child for election irregularities.  If states like Florida, North Carolina, Alabama, and Ohio are not protected, this legislation does not address our major problems and lets the legislatures in those states off the hook.  Year after year, our elections have been plagued by bad policies, passed by partisan lawmakers that make it harder to vote. It’s time to stop these tactics with bold, forward-looking measures that ensure all eligible citizens can cast their ballot. If we want a real voting rights law, then we must guarantee the right to vote to all citizens, and protect that right in our constitution and make it an unalienable right.