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Rev. Jesse Jackson assails new Florida election law at Tampa rally

TAMPA — The preacher's voice kept rising and hardly anyone in the pews could bear to sit any longer.

They waved and clapped. They called out. They searched for pens to sign petitions.

"Deep water does not drown you!" the preacher growled. "You drown when you stop kicking!"

The Rev. Jesse Jackson was in his element. The longtime civil rights leader spoke to nearly 500 people at 34th Street Church of God on Tuesday afternoon, stumping against Florida's controversial new election law.

Jackson, president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, said the law is aimed at making it harder for people, especially minorities and the young, to vote in Florida.

He is calling on the Justice Department to block implementation of the law by refusing to grant preclearance in Hillsborough and four other counties, a process required by the federal Voting Rights Act.

The law reduces early voting from 14 days to eight and excludes the Sunday before the general election; imposes fines on third-party groups that register voters if they do not submit applications within 48 hours; and requires voters who change counties to cast provisional ballots if they haven't updated voting addresses.

Speakers told the mostly black audience that Republican lawmakers had Barack Obama's 2008 presidential win in mind when they crafted the provisions.

"They don't want the man in the White House to go back," said state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.

Howard Simon, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, told the crowd that 54 percent of black voters cast their ballots during early voting in 2008. He said no one should rely on provisional ballots — that less than half are counted.

Jackson told the audience, however, not to think of the law only as something that suppresses the minority vote.

"Blacks are suffering, but not exclusively suffering," he said, in a slow cadence that spurred the crowd to repeat his words aloud.

"This land is our land, and no force will be able to take our right to vote," he said. "This land is our land, and we're not going back."

Jackson made an altar call of sorts: Anybody over 18 not registered to vote? Are you sure you're registered? "Come on down!" he said. "Come on down!"

A handful of people walked down the aisle and were handed forms. He also began seeking contributions for Rainbow PUSH.

The ACLU of Florida has filed a legal challenge to the law, and Gov. Rick Scott's attorneys have asked a U.S. District Court to dismiss the governor as a defendant.

In addition to Democratic members of Tampa Bay's legislative delegation, former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink attended. And the church's pastor is the Rev. Tom Scott, a former Tampa City Council member and mayoral candidate.

Henry Smith, a 54-year-old insurance agent from Tampa, said he found it informative.

"Overall it seems as though it's an attempt to cause primarily minorities not to vote," Smith said. "I feel Rick Scott is trying to clear the way either for himself or a similar politician in the future" to run for president.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson stands by with Rev. Tom Scott as state Sen. Arthenia Joyner speaks at the 34th Street Church of God in Tampa on Tuesday.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

The Rev. Jesse Jackson stands by with Rev. Tom Scott as state Sen. Arthenia Joyner speaks at the 34th Street Church of God in Tampa on Tuesday.

Rev. Jesse Jackson assails new Florida election law at Tampa rally 07/26/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 27, 2011 8:15am]
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