Friday, June 1, 2012

The pushback: Florida voter suppression suppressed

WITH TWO judicial haymakers, the federal government has begun a pushback against voter disenfranchisement before the Nov. 6 election. The actions on Thursday against the state of Florida effectively stop both actions against people trying to join the voter rolls and a law intended to purge Floridians already on those rolls. Considering the probable electoral-vote importance of Florida in the upcoming general election, and its sadly iconoclastic recent electoral history, the Justice Department has taken what’s to be rightly seen as the first shot on behalf of American citizens in the war on voters’ rights beyond the Sunshine State.

In a letter to Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department on Thursday demanded Florida stop purging its voting rolls because the process it is using has not been cleared under the Voting Rights Act.

TPM Docs: DOJ Demands Florida Stop Voter Purge

The stand reflected in the Justice Department’s letter shouldn’t have been the surprise it appears to have been. In a court filing back in March, DoJ stated that Florida’s rules governing community-based voter registration drives — one of the more odious parts of the measure signed into law last year by Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott — should not be precleared under the Voting Rights Act.

Under preclearance, any changes to voting procedures or laws in five Florida counties must have approval from the Justice Department or a federal judge before they go into effect — this to make sure that the proposed changes aren’t in violation of federal voting rights standards. Thursday’s letter was a follow-through of an action DoJ had already begun.

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The response to that letter was pretty much immediate. “We commend the attorney general of the United States Eric Holder for ensuring that the right to vote, the fundamental pillar of our democracy is protected for all American citizens,” said Penda Hair, co-director of The Advancement Project.

The Palm Beach Post reported today that “state elections supervisors said they will discontinue a state-directed effort to remove names from county voter rolls because they believe the state data is flawed and because the U.S. Department of Justice has said the process violates federal voting laws.

“The Justice Department letter and mistakes that the 67 county elections supervisors have found in the state list make the scrub undoable, said Martin County Elections Supervisor Vicki Davis, president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. "There are just too many variables with this entire process at this time for supervisors to continue," Davis told The Post.

Ron Labasky, association general counsel, ordered the 67 supervisors to stop processing the list, The Post reported today.

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BUT ALL THE governor’s men worked up a weak pushback of its own. “We have an obligation to make sure the voter rolls are accurate and we are going to continue forward and do everything that we can legally do to make sure than ineligible voters cannot vote,” said Chris Cate, a Detzner spokesman, to Janell Ross of The Huffington Post. “We are firmly committed to doing the right thing and preventing ineligible voters from being able to cast a ballot. We are not going to give up our efforts to make sure the voter rolls are accurate."

The operative word there, of course, is “legally.” The application of that adverb by the state of Florida is even more in question thanks to a Thursday ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Robert L. Hinkle, who issued an injunction barring enforcement of part of HB 1355, the state’s 2011 exclusionary election law, saying that a 48-hour deadline for third-party groups to turn in new voter registration forms is “harsh and impractical.”

While the judge let most of the controversial law stand, the rollback of the 48-hour deadline was widely hailed by voting rights orgs. The Brennan Center for Justice still called it “a breakthrough victory for Florida voters and voting rights advocates nationwide.”

The ruling was a big win for groups like Rock the Vote, Color of Change, and the League of Women Voters, which pulled out of voter registration efforts because of the 2011 law. And it puts the Scott administration directly at odds with the federal government, an increasingly untenable position that other state governments with such laws or measures would do well to consider.

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Big business and those who communicate its political interests got a wake-up call of their own today. Facing growing public pressure, Walmart, the global retail behemoth, said it was ending its 19-year relationship with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Washington-based nonprofit group of businesses and state lawmakers whose sub rosa function in recent years has been as a legislative bill-o-matic, a source of ready-made legislative model bills that pointedly advance a conservative political agenda — including bills like the "Stand Your Ground" law, the measure that helped get Trayvon Martin killed (... in Florida) and legislation that would raise the hurdles to voter registration and enfranchisement. Like the bill that became law in Florida last year. dropped out of ALEC last week, and more than a dozen other major companies including Kraft and Coca-Cola have done the same since April, the New Jersey Star-Ledger reported today.

With slightly more than five months before the election, this battle between severely conservative-corporate interests and the broad cross-section of the American middle class (and those fighting like hell to stay there) is joined.

The pushback just started. Maybe this is what democracy looks like, again.

Image credits: Scott: Florida state portrait (public domain). Hinkle: Tallahassee O. ALEC logo: © 2012 ALEC.

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