Orlando, Florida – A woman needed to switch her voter registration from her old home in Illinois; a homeless army veteran wanted to know how he could register despite having no permanent address.
A half-dozen volunteers from the League of Women Voters fielded those questions and helped people register earlier this week during a daylong event at Winter Park Tech, a vocational school here in central Florida. When they weren’t helping would-be voters, the volunteers, most of them retirees, munched on Triscuits and discussed segments from National Public Radio.
One of them, a longtime army reservist named Carlos, stood by the door to the school’s cafeteria, asking students if they were registered to vote.
More than a dozen US states have passed restrictive voting laws since the start of 2011, which “could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012”.
– Brennan Center for Justice
“No, because I’m not a citizen,” one 20-something Hispanic man answered. “We’ll get you next time,” Carlos replied with a grin.
It was a perfectly boring civic event, one of thousands organised every election year by the league, one of the largest voter registration groups in the United States.
But these events have become a source of controversy in Florida, where the state legislature passed a law last year making it harder for independent groups to register voters.
“We’ve been registering voters for about six weeks now, and it would have been more like six months,” said Jean Siegfried, one of the volunteers.
More than a dozen US states have passed restrictive voting laws since the start of 2011, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which concluded the laws “could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012”.
The changes in Florida have been particularly egregious: significant portions have been challenged in court by independent groups and by the federal government.
Part of the law was struck down this summer, and another piece was changed this week after a challenge by the Justice Department. But critics say it could still disenfranchise large numbers of voters, all of which are reliable constituencies for Democrats.
A ‘Mickey Mouse’ law
The Florida law, which was introduced by Republican lawmakers and passed along a party-line vote, required groups to submit completed voter registration forms within 48 hours or face heavy fines.
The League of Women Voters called the tight deadline “an undue burden”, and in November it suspended its registration drives in Florida, where it has worked for more than 70 years.
Several of the law’s supporters did not respond to repeated requests for interviews. They have said in the past that the law was needed to stop fraudulent voter registrations. “Mickey Mouse was registered to vote,” Eric Eisnaugle, a state representative from Orlando, claimed during a floor debate last year.
But the problem is hardly endemic. A national voting-rights program run by Arizona State University tallied up every documented case of election fraud since 2000. They found just 400 cases of registration fraud, 13 of them in Florida. None of them, incidentally, were linked to the League of Women Voters.
What’s more, many of these fraudulent registrations are spotted and thrown out by county officials. Someone did try to register Mickey Mouse in Florida – but officials in Orange County rejected him.
Far from correcting a problem, critics say the law discouraged certain groups – minorities and students, for example, both of whom tend to vote Democrat – from registering. African-American and Hispanic voters are twice as likely as whites to register at community-based events, according to data from the US Census Bureau.
The law was finally ruled unconstitutional this summer, and groups like the league are scrambling to catch up on voter registration.
“We’re trying to make it up now by getting out and registering as many, particularly young people, as we can,” Siegfried said.
John Knight, an African-American student at Winter Park, said he might not have registered without the League of Women Voters event.
“It was very convenient because I was here,” said Knight, who relies on city busses to get to school because he doesn’t own a car. “I’m here from 7:30 until 2:30. And for it to be here made it so much easier for me than trying to find transportation.”
‘Minorities are the majority’
A few days earlier, New Covenant, a predominantly black Baptist church in a rough part of Orlando, was celebrating its 20th anniversary. Randolph Bracy, the pastor, read from the book of Daniel and reminisced about the church’s early days, when he preached inside a tent.
Some people in his audience were more interested in talking politics, though; it was just days after the Democratic National Convention, and the crowd was decidedly pro-Obama. “People should definitely have that urgency to go out and vote for him,” said Karen Adams.
In past elections, Adams and many of her fellow worshippers would vote on the Sunday before election day, when black and Hispanic churches urge their members to vote immediately after services – what they’ve dubbed “souls to the polls”.
“It’s very helpful for the elderly as well as some of the members here who couldn’t get out during the week to post their votes,” said Adams, who said she personally voted on Sundays during the past four elections.
But the same law that restricted voter registration also reduced Florida’s early voting period, from two weeks to one. It also eliminated voting on the Sunday before election day.
In an interview on MSNBC last year, Rep Dennis Baxley, the Republican representative who sponsored the law, said he scrapped Sunday voting because of timing.
“There needs to be a break so that we can account for election day. We don’t have any time to set up for election day,” he said. “People want to be off on Sundays. A lot of our people go to church.”
“It’s just sad the things that have been done in order to suppress the vote.“
– LaVon Bracy, New Covenant church
Critics say the change was simply a bid to discourage minorities from voting. The Brennan Center has calculated that blacks and Hispanics made up about 56 per cent of the voters on the Sunday before election day, compared with about 34 per cent during the entire early voting period.
“I would venture to say more than half of our members voted early,” said LaVon Bracy, the pastor’s wife and a co-founder of New Covenant. “They [the state legislature] know that the minorities are the majority of those who are voting early.”
Five counties in Florida are covered by the Voting Rights Act, which gives the federal government jurisdiction over voting laws in places with a history of discriminating against minority voters.
So the Justice Department sued Florida over the early voting changes, saying that they could discriminate against minorities. The two sides announced a deal this week: Florida would offer eight days of early voting, which would include a Sunday – but not the Sunday before election day.
“They did this under the ruse of voter protection,” Bracy said. “It’s just sad the things that have been done in order to suppress the vote.”