One of us came to this country from Haiti for a better life arriving at age 79 and toiling hard as a farmworker. The other arrived on these shores at age four from Sri Lanka. Both of us were weaned on an American dream of democracy and equality.
Voting is the defining moment where that dream begins. Being able to have a voice in our nation inspired us to vote. One of us is now 42 years old. The other is 102, but that did not stand in the way of us exercising our civic duty last fall. Neither one of us dreamed it would be so hard.
One of us tried to vote twice, but the lines were so long that voting absentee became the best choice. The other’s story inspired President Barack Obama to invite Desiline to join First Lady Michelle Obama for the State of the Union address. We almost cried when the president told the story.
As Desiline shares it: “Although I had arrived at my polling place early in the morning, the line already stretched for many blocks, and the wait time was up to six hours. When more than three hours passed, I began to struggle on my feet, and a concerned poll worker asked me to come back later. On my second visit, I was finally able to cast my ballot. It should not take two visits and hours of waiting for anyone, let alone someone who’s 102 years old, to exercise this basic act of democracy.”
Voting for us is especially urgent. As immigrants, we know that there are many families that have been approved for visas but are stuck waiting for years before they can come see their relatives in the United States. It is Desiline’s dream to have her family members visit her before she makes that journey to the other side. We hope that President Obama will instruct the Department of Homeland Security to create a Haitian Family Reunification Program immediately. We want to make sure that Desiline can see her loved ones before she dies, and we would like to see laws passed that make voting more convenient and fair.
For hundreds of thousands of citizens throughout Florida, exercising their right to vote became an endurance test. At some polling places, people faced lines as long as eight hours. A recent study found that at least 200,000 Florida voters gave up in frustration over the long lines, and left without voting. This is a crime.
The problems with Florida elections did not happen by accident. We both know Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature enacted new laws that made it harder to vote. This included a law placing new requirements and penalties that were so prohibitive on voter registration drives that many groups shut down their voter registration operations in Florida. One of the main factors behind the long lines was Scott’s decision to cut the early voting period nearly in half.
It is time for true election reform in Florida, so that all eligible citizens who take the responsibility to participate in our democracy can cast a ballot and know it counts. Florida New Majority and a coalition of community organizations propose common sense recommendations to correct electoral dysfunction in Florida. That starts with enshrining an affirmative right to vote into state law, which would protect against partisan tampering and any form of discrimination in our elections.
To prevent those outrageous wait times again, the state must restore early voting to 14 days, including the Sunday before Election Day, and guarantee voting for at least 12 hours each day. The voter registration process in Florida must also be modernized, to let more eligible voters have their say. Giving voters the choice to register online would add hundreds of thousands of voters to the rolls.
Allowing people to update their registration address at their polling place when they move across county lines would ensure that no one loses the right to vote because they move, and automatic registration of every citizen who turns 18 would encourage participation. An eligible voter should be a registered voter — period.
Some say that the story of a 102-year-old woman pulling out all the stops in order to vote is inspiring. But it is shameful that anyone would be forced to wait in line for hours to participate in their own democracy. We must do more in Florida to ensure that elections are free, fair and accessible for all.
Desiline Victor is a Haitian American living in North Miami, who attended the State of the Union address. Gihan Perera is the executive director of Florida New Majority, a statewide civic participation and human rights organization.