by Andrew Gillum (South Florida SunSentinel)
As the drums beat louder for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, there is a chorus of voices on the Republican side shouting about “overturning” the will of voters in 2016. Of course, the majority of the popular vote actually went to Hillary Clinton, but the GOP’s complaint is truly rich for another reason: these are the same people who have systematically set up barriers to the exercise of the franchise — specifically, barriers for people of color and the poor, including the elderly and the young.
As we round the corner into 2020, it’s time to raise the alarm for those states and those voters most at risk in our elections.
One of those states is, of course, Florida, where a range of tactics have been used by right-wing legislators and elections authorities to suppress the votes of specific demographics. These include the re-disenfranchisement of people who had served their sentences after having been convicted of committing a felony.
In November 2016, Florida voters approved a referendum that restored voting rights to all who have served their time, and those who return to society in the future. But this outcome struck fear into the hearts of right-wing Republicans, because it could yield as many as 1 million potential new voters, including a full one-fifth of African Americans of voting age. So opponents found a new set of barriers in the form of a newfangled poll tax. In order to exercise their newly recovered franchise, re-enfranchised people would have to pay any outstanding court fees or other government fees related to their cases. That amounts to nullification — and in Florida, the situation is even worse than it sounds.
Bob Moser is an expert in Southern politics whose latest in-depth report, for People For the American Way’s Right Wing Watch, is titled “The Right Wing’s Strategy for Winning 2020: Stop Blacks and Latinos from Voting.” Of Florida, he says: “The state assesses more than 115 different fines against defendants — and unpaid court charges after 90 days are handed over to private debt collectors, who can add a surcharge of up to 40 percent to the fines and fees incurred by those so convicted.” During the period of incarceration, those fines often snowball. When these ostensibly re-enfranchised voters return to society, their employment prospects are scarce. Consequently, many of the very people to whom Florida voters restored voting rights remain locked out of the voting booth.
Of course, Florida is not alone in its voter suppression efforts. In North Carolina and New Hampshire, onerous new voter ID laws are designed to keep college students from voting. In Texas, lawmakers have outlawed mobile polling sites. In Arizona, GOP legislators eliminated early voting.
It’s important to realize, also, that protecting the vote doesn’t just happen at the moment of casting a ballot but extends all the way back to the registration process. Case in point: In Tennessee, the success of the Black Voter Project at registering new voters led the Republican legislature to effectively criminalize the legitimate process by which the non-profit was running its registration drive. There is genuine concern that the Tennessee law could become a model for other Republican-controlled states to suffocate voter-registration drives.
And across the country, voter rolls are being purged at a ferocious pace. A recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice notes that between 2016 and 2018, some 17 million registrations have been purged. The report notes that the most vigorous purging took place in counties with a history of voter discrimination.
The picture seems bleak, but only by understanding the scale of the challenge can we make progress. All of us take part in this fight — and all of us have to.
Every single one of us who is eligible must register, make a plan to vote, and cast our ballots for candidates who will empower us, not suppress us. If you have a friend or neighbor who needs help getting to the polls, offer that help. The good news is that despite the hurdles put in our way, registration and turnout numbers for African Americans and other marginalized communities are on the rise.
In an era in which elections are decided with increasing frequency by margins as small as 1 percent — or in the case of my race for governor of Florida, by just a third of a percent — that is truly significant.
It’s not too early to take action now; trust me, the other side already is. Let’s not let voter suppression steal our dream of a democracy that works for all of us.
Andrew Gillum, former mayor of Tallahassee, was the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Florida. He is currently a CNN political commentator and a Senior Fellow at People For the American Way. Earlier this year, he launched “Bring it Home Florida,” a statewide voter registration campaign.