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Voter Suppression: A Perfect Storm

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The group gathered at New Covenant Baptist Church last Thursday night wasn't large, but it was determined. And the community leaders, faith leaders and activists had reason to celebrate: a federal judge blocked some sections of Florida's 2011 voter-registration law, HB 1355. The controversial law, signed by Florida's Republican governor Rick Scott, is among the wave of initiatives passed around the country that in practice, would suppress minority voting in November's elections.

To Denise Velázquez, executive director of State Voices of Florida, the intention behind HB 1355 and similar laws couldn't be more clear: "They did it on purpose. There was no mistake about it. When we minority voters came out in 2008 in unprecedented numbers, they started looking for a way to keep that from happening again."

Four years later, voter enthusiasm hasn't yet returned to 2008 levels. But if the apathy many minority voters feel isn't enough to keep them from turning out this cycle, groups dedicated to voter registration and mobilization have to withstand the wave of harsh voter laws in many states. These laws, generally promoted by Republican legislatures and signed by Republican governors, are passed in the name of fighting "voter fraud," but have the potential to keep minorities from exercising their right to vote. It's a perfect storm of voter suppression.

"More than 5 million Americans could be affected by the new rules already put in place this year," an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice and the State University of New York Law School concludes. That number, the analysis adds, is "larger than the margin of victory in two of the last three presidential elections."

According to the Brennan Center, 180 bills restricting voting were introduced in 2011 across 41 states: 34 states considered bills requiring voters to present voter ID at the polls and 4 considered bills requiring them to present photo ID when registering. At least 17 states considered bills requiring voters to present proof of citizenship, like a birth certificate, to register to vote; in three states -- Alabama, Kansas and Tennessee -- the legislation passed. And at least 16 states considered bills placing restrictions on voter registration.

In all, of the 180 bills introduced since the beginning of 2011, 23 have been passed. Two more have been enacted by executive order.

The Brennan Center analysis finds that "15 states have passed restrictive voting laws that have the potential to affect the 2012 election. These states account for 210 electoral votes, or nearly 78 percent of the total needed to win the presidency."

And 47 bills, across 12 states, are still under consideration in state legislatures.

Last Thursday, federal judge Robert Hinkle blocked some of the most onerous provisions of Florida voter law HB 1355, including the section that would have given voter-registration groups only 48 hours to turn registration forms over to the state-or risk severe fines. Before HB 1355, groups had 10 days to submit forms they'd collected. According to the judge, the 48-hour window imposes a serious burden on these groups, and he added that "permitting responsible organizations to conduct voter-registration drives and making it easier for citizens to register and vote promotes democracy."

On the same day Judge Hinkle issued his ruling, the Department of Justice sent a letter to Florida's Secretary of State, warning that the state's effort to purge the voter rolls of ineligible voters could run afoul of federal election law.

The Miami Herald reported on Friday that the state has identified nearly 2,700 ineligible voters and "about 58% of those identified as potential noncitizens are Hispanics, Florida's largest ethnic immigrant population, the analysis of the list obtained by The Herald shows. Hispanics make up 13 percent of the overall 11.3 million active registered voters. The Herald added that "Hispanic, Democratic and independent-minded voters are the most likely to be targeted" and that "Whites and Republicans are disproportionately the least likely to face the threat of removal."

According to José Balasquide, Florida state director for Mi Familia Vota (a voter education, registration and mobilization group), the Florida bills are reactionary and unnecessary. "They haven't been able to demonstrate premeditated fraud," he says. "If they don't have proof, it seems to me that this is a strategy to depress the community's interest in participating in the electoral process, and organizations like ours from persuading and promoting electoral participation in the Latino community."

"Our efforts are harder now. We have to work more quickly and with more people, and it's more expensive. It will be harder, but we won't be deterred," Balasquide adds.

Velázquez agrees. Her group is a member of a broad statewide coalition that, despite the new obstacles, has registered 23,000 voters in South and Central Florida since March 1st.

"We're fighting on three fronts: to change these voter laws, to keep doing our work under the laws right now, and to defend our community's right to vote," Velázquez says.

She recognizes that, four years after the 2008 election, Hispanic voters have been affected by unemployment, foreclosures and the lack of immigration reform, all of which serve to dampen enthusiasm.

"We totally understand the frustration. But voting doesn't represent a candidate or a president. It represents the laws we want our legislatures and executives to pass. That's called civic participation. Sitting at home and being frustrated won't solve anything."

All the more so when some are trying to keep Hispanics from voting. "We have to stay very vigilant," Velázquez concludes.

Maribel Hastings is a senior advisor at America's Voice.