50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act discussion

BY PUNEET SANDHU, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – The Florida Holocaust Museum continues to commemorate the Civil Rights Movement and celebrate African-American history and culture with one of a number of events held throughout the city. Last Thurs., Sept. 24, a community conversation entitled “Voices of Experience: Personal Stories of the Civil Rights Struggle and Insights on the Voting Rights Act” was held at Pinellas Technical College, St. Petersburg campus.

Presented by the League of Women Voters (LWV) of the St. Petersburg Area, four panelists reflected on the changes to the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 in the 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill into law.

St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor, Dr. Kanika Tomalin said it is an important time to start a dialogue about voting and voting rights since this is an election season in St. Pete and next year the presidential election.

“Let’s exercise our right [to vote]. Let’s encourage and fight for others to be able to do the same, and in so doing we will honor those who came before us and fought so very hard for that right and for each of us,” she said.

Rachael Garafalo, first vice president and chairperson of the LWV Voter’s Service Committee, began a discussion about the state of voting laws today. She went on to relate how suppressive state legislation has eroded voter rights and protections through gerrymandering, onerous ID requirement, early voting reductions, voter roll purges and how in Florida it has become next to impossible to restore one’s right to vote due to a felony conviction.

“In 2013 the Voting Rights Act sustained a terrible blow when the Supreme Court struck down Section 4[b] of the Act, essentially nullifying provisions for federal oversight of state voting laws,” she said.

In other words, Section 4(b) had established a formula to identify jurisdictions that were especially prone to racial discrimination and which, under Section 5, thus required federal pre-clearance for any proposed changes to voting laws. These measures were intended to prevent jurisdictions from passing suppressive voting laws that targeted minorities, but the Supreme Court effectively ended pre-clearance, and the oversight it afforded, with its 2013 ruling.

“Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, Florida had five counties that were considered pre-clearance counties,” Dr. Joyce Hamilton Henry, Director of Advocacy for the Florida American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), author and a former African American Studies professor, said. “They were Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe counties. Now what this means is these counties no longer need to follow the practices that they were engaged in to ensure that minorities can vote, including language-minority individuals.”

As one of the panelists, Henry spoke about “the many different things that have been done just in the past four years to render the Voting Rights Act ineffective. In early 2011 to 2012, there were 180 restrictive voting bills introduced in 41 states. All of them had to do with suppression. Subsequently, 19 states had 27 voting measures to suppress the vote. And the individuals who were disproportionately impacted—the

individuals for whom the Voting Rights Act was intended to protect—were disproportionately minorities and also low-income individuals.”

Those more recent voting bills across different states include proof of citizenship requirements to be able to register and vote, the limiting of voter registration mobilization efforts and the termination of Election Day and same-day voter registration.

“In 2011, Florida passed a very bad piece of voter-suppression legislation,” said Henry. Early-vote days were shortened from 40 days to eight days. Third-party voter-registration organizations like the League of Women Voters were required to turn in voter registration applications in 48 hours instead of the 10 days they previously had. And now a person’s signature only stays on record for two years instead of four.

Henry also addressed Florida’s tough policy on restoring former felons’ right to vote.

“Under Jeb Bush there were about 72,000 individuals who got their rights restored,” Henry said. “Under Charlie Crist there were about 154,000 individuals and under the current administration going into the second term, we have 1,500 individuals who have gotten their rights restored today. That is a democracy at risk.”

Acting Deputy Director of the Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs Stephanie Owens-Royster spoke about the changes that must be made for the VRA to better serve the people.

“Number one, Congress needs a path to update a version of the Voting Rights Act that would correct these recent problems,” Owens-Royster said. “Since the legislative session began in 2015 in January, 113 bills were introduced that would restrict access to registration and voting.” Such measures are only adding to the difficulty of voting for certain individuals.

Problems with the voting process itself that deter some people from voting, Owens-Royster said, should be addressed with “forward-looking technology.” One issue is the sometimes lengthy, confusing process of voting at the polls.

“I can vote for the winner of “The Voice” in two seconds, so it shouldn’t take me 45 minutes to actually vote for the president of the United States,” Owens-Royster said.

Imam Askia Muhammad Aquil, president & CEO of Florida Housing Solutions, Inc. and an activist and religious leader, pointed out that in some countries’ election day is a national holiday in order to allow as many people as possible to vote. That it is not a holiday in the U.S., he said, is evidence that those in power want to prevent low-income, working class groups and minorities from voting.

“There are many things that can be done to facilitate voting and to enfranchise people if that were the objective of the people in power,” Aquil said. “I don’t think that’s their objective. I think they look for every opportunity to disenfranchise people and to discourage them by making things difficult.”

Aquil shared his view that “a sense of urgency” is required to encourage officials to amend the voting process so that more people are able to vote. “When [people] are passionate, they go to the ballot box,” he stated. “Unless and until we in our own lives and hearts create a sense of urgency about this, a sense of how important it is, and then communicate that to the people in power in office, we will continue to have this long, slow, dragged-out process.”

Aquil added that people would only feel their votes matter if elected officials are held accountable. “People get excited and vote, and then they realize [the officials] don’t do what they say they’re going to do anyway, so they feel they’re just wasting their time by voting,” Aquil said. “We have to be able to hold them accountable.”

Event moderator and School Board member Rene Flowers asked the panelists to respond to those people who fear that technology as implemented in the voting process will lead to fraud and corruption.

Owens-Royster suggested turning to   Silicon Valley “to get the kind of end-to-end security that’s needed to protect the vote, the same way we protect medical information when we collect that kind of data.”

Harry Harvey, the vice chair of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority Board, chair of the St. Petersburg NAACP and board ambassador with the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections said, “If people are afraid of voting fraud, I always stress that they should vote by mail,” which he said is a very secure process.

Henry added that Florida recently passed online voter registration legislation that will take effect in 2017, “so we’re moving in the right direction to utilize technology to make it easier to register to vote.”

Flowers then asked the panel to share their thoughts on why the number of young adult voters has recently declined. Henry noted that after a surge in young adult voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election, during which 19 percent of those aged 18 to 29 voted, the percentage dropped to 13 percent in 2014. Laws intentionally targeting young people, she said, were partly to blame.

“Voter suppression methods are intended to keep that population from turning out to vote, because when they do turn out to vote … they tend to vote overwhelmingly Democrat,” Henry said.

Aquil added that for young people today, voting is not as much of “an invasive, visceral process” as it was when he was young, when people used “direct action and civil disobedience … as tools for our democracy.”

He said young people today get involved with social justice via social media, “but one of the problems with social media is there are so many things, so many different distractions. Those people who are involved in the movement also know how easy those things can be undermined. You can pull it apart, you can distract people with other things and eventually they forget all about what they’re fighting for.”

This community conversation was made possible by Florida Blue, Pinellas County Urban League, Pinellas Technical College, The League of Women Voters and The Florida Holocaust Museum.

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