Attorney General Eric Holder sent the right message this week as he called access to the ballot box for all eligible voters "a moral imperative." He also properly singled out Florida and other states that have enacted laws that run counter to that declaration and suppress the vote. But it will take tough scrutiny by the Justice Department and the federal courts, not just rhetoric, to ensure that Floridians are not disenfranchised.
Holder said in a speech on Tuesday in Texas that more than a dozen states have passed new voting rules. He specifically noted changes in Florida, which include making it harder for independent groups to register residents to vote and reducing the number of early voting days from 14 to eight. The law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature also stopped early voting on the Sunday before election day — when historically black churches routinely helped send reliably Democratic voting residents to vote. Florida made an end run around the Justice Department on these changes and is seeking approval instead from a three-judge court in Washington, but these are the sorts of discriminatory voting practices that should not be approved by the courts.
Like a handful of other states, Florida is asking the courts to reach beyond whether the voting law changes are legal. Instead, it wants the Washington panel to end the federal process that could prevent the changes from taking place in Hillsborough and four other Florida counties. The state is challenging the so-called preclearance process under the federal Voting Rights Act that gives the federal government authority to preapprove election law changes that apply to areas with a history of voter discrimination. Holder vigorously defended the review process in his speech and said "both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common. And we don't have to look far to see recent proof.''
In fact, Floridians can look in their own back yard. The changes to voting registration are so absurd that a Santa Rosa County high school teacher faces a $1,000 fine for failing to comply with the new law requiring all new voter registration forms to be turned in within 48 hours instead of within 10 days under the old rules. The League of Women Voters has suspended its voter registration drives after more than 70 years because of the new law. And in Hillsborough County, the rules for early voting and casting ballots at regular polling places are up in the air until the courts rule.
Holder called for a straightforward system allowing all eligible citizens to automatically register to vote and a portable registration system so that the one in nine Americans who move each year easily can cast ballots at their new polling place. Yet Florida's new law makes it harder for people who move from one county to another to cast regular ballots.
The attorney general challenged Americans to speak out about efforts to suppress voting, and Tampa Bay will have an opportunity to make its voice heard next month. At U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's request, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee will hold a public hearing on Jan. 27 in Tampa on Florida's new voting laws. That should be an excellent opportunity to put the spotlight on the new state law that will make it more difficult to register to vote and for minorities in particular to cast ballots. And while the attorney general has highlighted the issue in this week's speech, he can take stronger action by directing the Justice Department to vigorously contest Florida's voting changes before the three-judge panel in Washington.