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Courts must remedy blatantly racist voter-suppression law | Commentary

Florida lawmakers took a page from the past when they enacted a set of new voting restrictions. Now it’s the courts’ turn to right this terrible wrong.

Supporters say the measures, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in early May, increase transparency and strengthen election security. But here’s the rub: Florida didn’t have a problem with transparency or election security. In fact, the very officials who were clamoring to pass and sign this new law were trumpeting Florida’s success with running elections not that long ago.

The legislation, which limits the use of ballot drop boxes and tightens requirements for voting by mail, is simply not needed. There is no empirical evidence or data to back up claims that it is. And there’s no game plan on how to implement it.

So what’s really at work here? Racism. Florida’s law is part of a concerted, Republican-led effort to limit voters’ access to the polls. But not just any voters. Black and Hispanic voters. After all, those voters helped elect Democrat Joe Biden in November 2020.

As of late March, state lawmakers across the country have introduced more than 300 bills to restrict voting access, according to the Brennan Center, a New York think tank. It’s no surprise that Republican-controlled states are leading the charge, taking a cue from former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims that massive election fraud cost him the election and led to Biden’s victory.

The efforts at suppression are particularly troubling in Florida, a critical battleground state that has worked hard to build a reliable election system in the wake of the tumultuous 2000 election. Now, the new law threatens the state’s good work.

In fact, shortly after Republicans in the Legislature passed the election bill, the president of the Florida Supervisors of Election argued it was unnecessary and would only make it harder to vote.

To remedy this misguided and unnecessary legislation, several voting-rights groups have sued the state to block implementation of the law — among them the Orlando-based Equal Ground Education Fund, a community-centered group whose mission on voter rights is shared by organizations such as the Florida State Network of African American Clergy Alliances.

Like others, this latest suit, filed in federal court last week, challenges the law and contends it amounts to voter suppression. It asserts that the new law violates the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 and unlawfully abridges voters’ rights to voter assistance at polling locations. It also details how the new law will disproportionately disenfranchise Black and Hispanic voters and harm the work of civic engagement organizations.

Consider the restrictions on the use of drop boxes, a convenient and safe method for depositing absentee ballots, particularly after hours. Black and Hispanic voters often turn to these boxes to cast their ballots. Though the law does not outright ban them — after all, they are an important tool for casting ballots — it will make them unusable for many voters who will not be able to deliver a ballot during business hours.

The law also places restrictions on providing assistance at the polls and adds more identification requirements for absentee ballot requests. While placing an unjustified burden on all voters, these restrictions hit Black and Hispanic voters particularly hard.

Prior to the 2020 election, white voters were more likely to vote by mail. But in the last presidential race, Black and Hispanic voters increasingly turned to this method, with both groups significantly boosting the percentage of voters using mail ballots.

The truth is the Legislature had no trouble making voting by mail more accessible until voters of color started using the practice more.

Democracy is at stake here. It thrives when all citizens participate — particularly at the ballot box. Instead of enacting a racist law to address a fabricated problem, we should be building on the progress we’ve made to expand voter access. Let’s call Florida’s law what it is: blatant discrimination, nothing more than a return to the Jim Crow restrictions that disenfranchised Black voters in the South.

Dick Batchelor is an Orlando business consultant and former state legislator. Marcus McCoy Jr. is senior pastor of the Greater Refuge Memorial Church in Orlando and the faith outreach state director of the Equal Grounds Education Fund. James E.C. Perry is a former Florida Supreme Court justice.


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