Florida voter suppression flouting federal law, international obligations

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:

(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;

(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 25

The state of Florida, epicenter of the disputed 2000 presidential election, is once again placing the spotlight on long-standing electoral problems in the United States. A string of statutes and rules adopted recently by the state appear designed to limit the ability of voters to participate in the November 2012 general elections, targeting, in particular, African Americans and Latinos.

The state’s voter suppression activities are leading to a slew of legal challenges claiming that the changes violate the Constitution and federal law, and are also becoming a concern to the international community. As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and signatory to the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document, the U.S. has agreed to certain commitments on holding free and fair elections, commitments that are being flouted by efforts to suppress the vote in Florida and elsewhere.

International election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has been monitoring elections in the U.S. since the disputed election of 2000, conducted an electoral “needs assessment mission” to the United States in April and issued a critical preliminary report last month.

On the domestic front, voter advocacy groups sued the state last week, claiming that its recent voter purge targeting noncitizens unfairly discriminates against minorities. While 14 percent of voters in Florida are Hispanic, the complaint points out, 61 percent of the names on the state’s purge list are Hispanic.

The Miami Herald reports that “the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Miami, adds to a growing volume of litigation over the state’s decision to target more than 2,600 registered voters whose citizenship was questioned in a driver license database.”

The U.S. Justice Department sued the state last month to block the voter purge, claiming it violates a federal law that prohibits the systematic removal of voters from the rolls within 90 days of a federal election. The ACLU and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights have also sued to block removal efforts in five counties under federal oversight in electoral matters.

According to the Herald:

The latest lawsuit, filed on behalf of two Hispanic women in Miami-Dade County, charges that the purge violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits any action that denies or abridges the voting rights of racial or ethnic minorities. It also echoes the federal government’s argument that the National Voter Registration Act prohibits any systematic removal of ineligible voters less than 90 days from the date of a federal election, which in Florida is Aug. 14.

“What we know so far is this: It’s devastating for the Latino and black communities in Florida,” said Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel to Latino Justice, a New York group that joined in the lawsuit. “You have a clear racial impact.”

The lawsuits over the controversial voter purge coincide with other legal challenges to voter suppression efforts in Florida, including new voter ID requirements and restrictions on voter registration efforts. Late last month, a federal judge in Florida blocked parts of a state law that placed “harsh and impractical” restrictions on civic groups that help new voters register to vote.

The Florida rules restricting voter registration “impose a harsh and impractical 48-hour deadline for an organization to deliver applications to a voter registration office and effectively prohibit an organization from mailing,” the judge said. “And the statute and rule impose burdensome record-keeping and reporting requirements that serve little if any purpose, thus rendering them unconstitutional.”

Most recently, the Department of Justice has challenged newly adopted rules in Florida that cut back on early voting hours, arguing that the restrictions unfairly burden the state’s minorities.

On Thursday, U.S. Justice Department lawyers argued before a three-judge District Court panel in Washington that the changes in early voting hours violate Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires that states with a history of discrimination obtain federal approval before making changes to electoral rules.

Section 5 also mandates that courts review the law for retrogression, anything that would leave minority groups worse off than they were before the law’s enactment.

During the 2008 election, about 55 percent of black voters cast their ballots during the early voting period that would be reduced under the law, according to data from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In 2008, the OSCE noted that “the increased possibility to vote early was a highly positive step for the U.S. electoral process.” That year, more than a third of American voters voted early: 18 percent of them cast their ballots at early voting sites, while 19 percent voted by mail. This was seen as especially encouraging because in past election cycles, hours-long lines effectively disenfranchised tens of thousands of voters.

Following the midterm elections of 2010, OSCE observers again noted the beneficial development of early voting, which facilitated the participation of millions of Americans and “eased any capacity problems that might have occurred.”

These positive developments, however, are being rolled back across the country this year. In addition to Florida, state legislatures adopted legislation to restrict early voting in Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

Another positive development that OSCE observers have noted in the past – but being reversed this year – is the loosening of restrictions on the voting rights of ex-prisoners. In line with OSCE recommendations, in 2007, Florida Governor Charlie Crist pushed through new procedures to speed up the process for most felons (excluding murderers and sex offenders) seeking a restoration of voting rights.

In its final report on the 2010 midterm elections, the OSCE said that “recent examples of loosening of restrictions” on the voting rights of former prisoners “are a welcome development.”

In its recent preliminary report on the 2012 elections, however, the OSCE lamented that in 2011, “Florida and Iowa passed legislation that reversed previous reforms, re-introducing permanent disenfranchisement of prisoners and ex-prisoners.”

Florida also joins Texas in adopting laws making voter registration more difficult. The two states have a long history of restricting voter registration drives, although neither has reported cases of registration fraud in the past election cycle.

The OSCE report observes that in the U.S., “voter registration and identification are politically polarized, split on the issue of enfranchisement versus integrity of the vote.”

Noting the Justice Department’s role in monitoring state implementation of federal election law, the OSCE pointed out that the DoJ is actively involved in several cases, including on redistricting and voter identification.

“Contrary to good electoral practice,” however, the final decisions on some changes to state electoral law “may only be reached in the weeks shortly before election day, which may affect electoral participants’ understanding of provisions or their ability to fulfil their roles effectively.”

In other words, by the time some of these legal challenges are decided, it may be too late and thousands of voters could be unfairly disenfranchised.

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About The Compliance Campaign

Campaigning for a United States in compliance with its international obligations. Follow on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/compliancecamp Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/compliancecamp Comments, article submissions or news leads are welcome at compliancecampaign [at] gmail.com.

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