In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Crippled Voting Rights Act should inspire a new level of clever election ‘reforms’

Just two hours after the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act last week, Texas celebrated by reinstating a discredited voter ID law, designed to tamp down those damn nuisance minority voters. Mississippi was not far behind.

Florida, I expect, will be more subtle. The politics hereabouts, in an evenly divided state, are a bit more delicate.

Texas was among a slew of states, including Florida, that leading up to the 2012 election passed clever new laws designed to diminish voter turnout.

The purported goal, of course, was to prevent voter fraud, though anyone who follows elections in South Florida knew that to be fallacious. None of those “reforms” addressed absentee-ballot fraud, the mechanism that had been used to corrupt one local election after another.

While there was little evidence that illegal immigrants or other categories of unregistered voters would risk felony convictions to cast illegal votes, there was plenty of evidence — along with election-fraud convictions — indicating that vote brokers in Miami or Hialeah often collect and bundle absentee ballots, occasionally filling them out and forging voter signatures. Not that South Florida invented the practice. The profitable enterprise of absentee ballot fraud has a long, sordid, well-documented history in American elections. But earlier this month, the Herald’s Marc Caputo and Patricia Mazzei reported that the illegal brokers in Miami-Dade had gone high-tech in the 2012 election, devising a complicated scheme to fraudulently request 2,046 absentee ballots online, hiding their IP addresses by routing the applications through computers in India and Britain.

If clean elections had been the real goal of the so-called reformers going into 2012, they’d surely have tightened the laws regulating absentees. They didn’t. Instead, they crafted statutes, sometimes word for word, from boilerplate legislation concocted by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council.

The Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott championed a set these so-called reforms. Maribel Balbin, president of the non-partisan League of Women Voters of Miami-Dade, told the Presidential Commission on Election Administration on Friday that these “sweeping election laws” were obviously designed for “partisan manipulation.”

That 128-page election “reform” bill cut back on early voting and eliminated the long-honored practice in Florida of allowing voters who have moved since the last election to register their new addresses on election day.

And the law put onerous new restrictions on third-party registration groups, like the League of Women Voters. Balbin told the commission that the statutes “made it almost impossible for us to register voters.”

The League suspended registration efforts for nearly a year. Meanwhile, the state launched a clumsy purge of the voter rolls that zapped a number of legitimate voters, mostly Hispanics. Finally, the U.S. Justice Department and the federal courts intervened, invoking the landmark Voting Rights Act.

But the Supreme Court changed the rules last week, freeing up the 15 states covered by the Voting Rights Act — including most of the old Confederacy — from the requirement that they first submit proposed changes in election laws for review by the Justice Department. Without the so-called “preclearance” requirement, states are free to pass new voter laws without federal interference. Voters can still take the allegations of discrimination into federal court, except those cases most likely won’t be settled until after the disputed election.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the majority opinion, said the court’s quarrel had been with what he described as an outdated, circa 1965 formula used to decide which states must submit their voting laws for preclearance. “Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions,” he wrote. Though, of course, this dysfunctional Congress can’t pass a bipartisan farm bill. The notion that this bunch might get together on voter anti-discrimination law seems downright fanciful.

Apparently, the court majority decided that the Voting Rights Act has been working so well in getting rid of discrimination that it was no longer constitutional. That theory seemed at odds with the testimony elicited by the Presidential Commission at Friday’s hearing in Miami. The commission heard a report from election experts Michael Herron of Dartmouth and Daniel Smith of the University of Florida, covering 85 percent of the state’s precincts, that found Hispanics and blacks faced longer, sometimes hours longer, waits to vote in their overwhelmed urban precincts in the 2012 general election.

The daunting waits diminished turnout by an estimated 200,000 voters in Florida. Kathy Culliton-Gonzalez of the Advancement Project, the advocacy group that sponsored the Herron-Smith study, called the delays a “time tax” on voting. “Voters of color paid that time tax more than white voters.”

Last month, Gov. Scott signed a bill into law that undid some of the damage caused by the 2011 law. Early voting was extended. And restrictions on early voting locations were loosened. The length of constitutional amendments was limited to 75 words. And, finally, the state enacted some restrictions on people who request absentee ballots.

Well, hurray. We’re not Texas. It’s almost as if Florida legislators seem a little chastised by their ham-handed efforts to beat down the minority vote and deliver the state’s electoral college votes to the Republican presidential candidate in 2012. All they accomplished, really, was to get that particular segment of the electorate riled and determined to vote. No matter how long the wait.

But you’ve got to worry, with the Voting Rights Acts crippled, with the good ol’ boys in Texas and elsewhere in the Confederacy raring to push another round of election “reforms,” that the gang in Tallahassee might get inspired to come up with new and novel ways to limit the turnout of certain demographics.

Odd, isn’t it, how our governor and legislative leadership defend gun rights with such fervor, based on a single, ambiguous passage in the Constitution. Meanwhile, the phrase “right to vote” shows up in the 14th, 15th, 19th, 24th and 26th Amendments. You’d think our legislators might defend that right to vote with as much enthusiasm as they champion our sacred right to shoot.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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