Guest Column
In Florida, it’s too early to put discussion of voter suppression to bed | Column
Not through violence, intimidation and lynching, but this is what voter suppression looks like in our democracy today.
A woman helps a voter in a wheelchair get her ballot into the dropbox at the Supervisor of Elections office in West Palm Beach on Oct. 30, 2020.
A woman helps a voter in a wheelchair get her ballot into the dropbox at the Supervisor of Elections office in West Palm Beach on Oct. 30, 2020.
Published Feb. 18, 2022

I’m beginning to hear folks say that they’ve had enough, that it’s time to put discussion of voter suppression to bed — that it’s mostly partisan-inspired hype anyway. There’s a simple solution, these skeptics claim: If you want to vote, all you need to do is get off your duff, get an ID, register and go vote.

Howard Simon
Howard Simon [ Provided ]

These statements are certainly worth careful examination — starting first in our own backyard.

Following the 2020 election, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that Florida (finally) got election administration right, and that the election was a model of competence and efficiency. Nevertheless, the following April, the Legislature enacted Senate Bill 90.

The bill restricts vote-by-mail applications and access to drop boxes to conveniently deposit your ballot anytime, night or day. SB 90 makes it harder to vote, without justification for doing so. Not surprisingly, it is now the subject of a federal court challenge.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dennis Baxley, claimed the changes were needed to prevent voter fraud. Of course, there was no evidence of fraud, and on signing the bill, DeSantis claimed that “Floridians can rest assured that our state will remain a leader in ballot integrity.”

But emails and text messages later revealed that they lied to the people of Florida. Their concerns were partisan — they wanted to cut into Democrats’ advantage in sign-ups for vote-by-mail ballots.

This, rather than violence, intimidation and lynching, is what voter suppression looks like as our democracy enters the 21st century — adopting measures to make it more difficult for the perceived opposition to cast a ballot, all the while asserting the best of intentions: addressing voter fraud and reassuring voters of the integrity of elections.

The list of creative methods invented by politicians to manipulate elections and tamp down turnout of an increasingly diverse electorate is extensive: restrictions on non-partisan voter registration drives as conducted by the League of Women Voters; blocking people from voting by requiring an original birth certificate or only a government-issued ID; making voting less convenient by reducing the number of polling places or the number of early voting hours and days; campaigns to confuse voters by fielding “ghost candidates,” and, of course, diluting the power of the vote through gerrymandering that clusters those in the opposition into a few districts.

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The creative tactics that politicians (sometimes Democrats, but these days mostly Republicans) have invented to manipulate elections by suppressing the vote, diluting the power of the vote, “putting a thumb on the scale” and other ways in which votes are lost, such as mal-administration of elections, are too numerous for this space. For an inventory of voter suppression tactics, click here.

I would be remiss not to highlight one tactic blocking citizens from the voting booth that has been used more in Florida than anywhere else (in the world!) — the disfranchisement of those with a past felony conviction. Voters seized control of their Constitution in 2018 and ended lifetime felon disfranchisement, but our Legislature claiming to “interpret the will of the voters” enacted what one federal judge correctly called a “pay to vote” system.

Martin Luther King Jr. said that the history of voting rights in the United States is in large part the history of white people in power devising endless ways to keep Black people from casting a ballot.

To ignore that record, and how the past has continuing impact on the present is to be willfully ignorant of our history.

Yes, let’s put discussion of voter suppression to bed. But the only way to do that is for politicians to stop embracing policies to suppress the right to vote.

Howard L. Simon served as executive cirector of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida from 1997-2018. He is a resident of Sanibel Island.