Organizations that have provided volunteers to help voters cast ballots are opposing a provision before the Florida Legislature that they say would greatly inhibit their activities and could keep some citizens from voting.
The amendment to the Omnibus Elections Reform Bill (HB 7013 and SB 600) would limit any volunteer — not a polling place worker but a volunteer from outside organizations — from helping more than 10 voters during any election, including during early voting days. The amendment also says that the person who assists a voter must be an individual the voter knew before that day, not someone he or she has just met at the polling place.
The provision would affect organizations such as the NAACP, labor unions and immigrant organizations, all of which position volunteers outside polling precincts to offer help to voters.
The amendment was introduced by Sen. Jake Latvala, R-Clearwater, who said he objected to the fact that “in certain locations, people stand and hang around the polling location… and try to assist multiple voters all day long as part of the voting process.”
Opponents say the amendment violates Section 208 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which allows any voter in need of assistance to choose a person to help them fill out a ballot at the polling place.
“If a voter needs assistance deciphering a complex ballot initiative, or does not know how to read and write in English, they should never feel that they cannot ask for help,” said Gihan Perera, executive director of the Florida New Majority, a grassroots minority rights organization.
In a conference call with journalists Monday, Perera referred to the long lines on voting days during the last election, in part due to lengthy state constitutional amendments, and said volunteers who helped some voters decipher the amendments served as “first responders to an election disaster.” He labeled Latvala’s concerns as “political hysteria.”
Latvala has argued that the Voting Rights Act is designed to provide assistance for the disabled persons and persons who can’t read and that such volunteer organizations were applying the law too broadly and trying to help people who don’t fit into those categories.
Carline Gele of Miami-Dade, a polling place volunteer for the Service Employees International Union, said she had helped as many as 70 persons in a day during the last voting cycle, mostly Haitians whose main language is Creole.
Gele said members of her organization had also worked at polling places in Delray Beach helping Creole-speakers “translate” ballots so they could vote. She said reducing the number of persons a volunteer could help could deprive those persons of their right to vote.
“The senator has it wrong,” she said of Latvala. “We were not there to influence any voters. Most of them needed help in literacy, not who or what they were voting for.”
Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher confirmed that Palm Beach County does not print ballots in Creole, only in English and Spanish. But she said Creole-speaking voters could use a touch screen ballot in Creole and they also could ask for a ballot that came with Creole language audio.
“We also know where we have large numbers of Creole speakers and we send Creole-speaking poll workers to those places,” Bucher said. She mentioned Delray Beach, parts of Lake Worth, Riviera Beach, Lake Park and Wellington. “We also have phone banks with Creole speakers who can help.”
Bucher said she thought Palm Beach County was prepared to help its Creole-speaking voters, but she still thinks that Latvala’s amendment is a questionable idea. “I don’t think it’s real positive to say they can’t pick a person to help if the law says they have that right,” she said.