On the Sunday before the 2008 presidential election, church goers in Florida streamed from the pews to early voting places to cast their ballots.
The so-called Souls to the Polls campaigns were a windfall for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama and the Democrats. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, more than 32 percent of those who voted early on that last Sunday before Election Day were African American, and nearly 24 percent were Latino. Moreover, according to a report released by the Florida State Senate, 52 percent of people who voted early in the 2008 election were registered Democrats.
“Preachers would preach a great sermon and then march to the polls with their congregations,” said Hilary Shelton, senior vice president for advocacy and policy at the NAACP.
But voting laws passed in Florida last year have limited early voting, including on the Sunday before Election Day. Opponents say the early voting limitations are part of a broader effort by Republican-led legislatures across the country to suppress the black, minority and elderly voting blocs, groups expected to be key to President Obama’s bid for reelection in 2012. The efforts include new voting laws passed in more than a dozen states, some requiring government-issued identification to vote and others limiting third-party voter registration drives.
The controversial voter ID laws, which Democratic officials have called “a full-scale assault” on minority voters, have drawn media attention lately. Special interest groups, including the NAACP and labor unions, have held rallies and filed lawsuits against them. In a high-profile speech U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urged political parties “to resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success.” And last month the Justice Department blocked a law in South Carolina requiring voter IDs, while it continues to investigate a similar law in Texas.
But opponents of the laws say other efforts, including congressional redistricting and limitations on early voting, are equally as repressive to minority voters. In some states the redistricting efforts — part of the traditional gerrymandering of congressional districts done every 10 years after the census — have resulted in “packing,” or shifting large swaths of racial minorities into districts that already are predominantly minority, essentially neutralizing their votes.
Republicans contend that the stricter voting laws are needed to protect against voter fraud, though there is little evidence that widespread fraud exists. Florida also has some of the toughest restrictions on the rights of ex-felons to vote, a cumbersome, complicated process that some have called punitive. In Alabama and Kansas, voters must show proof of citizenship to register.
Shelton, who is also the director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau, likened the new voter laws to voter suppression tactics used during the Jim Crow era, when blacks were routinely intimidated at the polls, were forced to pay poll taxes or were routinely humiliated by having to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap in order to vote.
“It’s eerily familiar. It’s scary,” Shelton told The Huffington Post. “We thought we put Jim Crow in its grave, buried it six feet under and were through with it once and for all. But this is a more sophisticated, more high-tech approach to racial discrimination. This isn’t Jim Crow, this is James E. Crow Esq. Jr.”
Shelton continued: “Look at what’s being done now. What they are doing is using tools that don’t have race attached to it, but when they are applied, you get the same impact.”
Anthony E. Fairfax, a political and demographics analyst and president of CensusChannel in Washington, D.C., agreed that the Republican strategy is subtle.
“It’s a new technique. If you step back, I would say it’s brilliant,” Fairfax told HuffPost. “I think it’s orchestrated in some fashion to change the picture or makeup of the voting electorate. If you can’t win with normal tactics, then you have to change the makeup of the electorate, and I think that is what it is about. Whether it will be successful is another story.”
Former president Bill Clinton told a group of activists last summer that “there has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today.”
Ohio has eliminated early voting on Sunday altogether. In Florida early voting was cut from 14 days to eight, including the last Sunday before Election Day. The passage of bill HB 1355, which shortened the early voting period in the state, also prevents voters from changing their addresses at the polls and restricts third-party voter registration groups. As a consequence of the new restrictions, the League of Women Voters has ended their voter registration program.
“When we looked at the laws, we felt that this would put our thousands of volunteers across the state who have registered voters for 70 years in Florida at a grave disadvantage,” Deirdre MacNabb, president of the Florida League of Women Voters, told the website TPM Muckraker. “We did not feel that we as an organization could ask our volunteers to undergo that kind of vague, restrictive and punitive restriction which the legislature has tried to impose.”
Ciarra Torres-Spelliscy, an assistant professor of law at Stetson University College of Law, said the bill “makes it very difficult for one Florida citizen to help another Florida citizen vote.”
Spelliscy said that since 2005 a number of legal challenges have been filed against voter laws passed by the state legislature. She also pointed out that the new voter laws are currently in effect in 62 of the state’s 67 counties. Because of their past history of voter discrimination, the five remaining counties fall under provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which requires that changes to voting laws in those counties be cleared by the Justice Department. The current laws have yet to be cleared or blocked.
Holder, during his speech on voting rights last month, singled out Florida, saying that the DOJ was examining changes to its voting laws.
“Although I cannot go into detail about the ongoing review of these and other state law changes, I can assure you that it will be thorough — and fair,” Holder said. “We will examine the facts, and we will apply the law. If a state passes a new voting law and meets its burden of showing that the law is not discriminatory, we will follow the law and approve the change. And where a state can’t meet this burden, we will object as part of our obligation under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.”
Spelliscy said the end of early voting on Sundays will likely disproportionately affect blacks and Latinos.
“We think that this is going to have an impact on minority voters in particular, because Hispanic voters and more black voters voted on that Sunday proportionately than their white counterparts,” she said. “It could be because they are more religious, or because [blacks and Latinos] are more working class and it is more difficult to vote on Tuesdays because of work.”