Deirdre Macnab, president of the Florida League of Women Voters, says the electoral laws passed by Florida’s GOP-controlled legislature in 2011 provide the best evidence nationwide for why the U.S. Supreme Court should not strike down Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Tim Durham, chief deputy supervisor of elections in Collier County, disagrees. He says Florida can do fine without it.
Wednesday, the Supreme Court justices heard arguments against the formula according to which the Department of Justice must pre-approve — or “pre-clear” — prospective changes in electoral laws in parts of the U.S. that have had a history of racial discrimination in the conduct of elections. Those laws cover nine entire states, most in the Deep South, and parts of several other states. In Florida, five counties are covered — Collier, Hillsborough, Hardee, Hendry and Monroe.
The fact that part of Florida is covered by Section 5 led the Department of Justice to review HB 1355, the 2011 Florida law that reduced early voting days and also put much tighter restrictions on how independent voter registration groups, like the League of Women Voters, signed up voters. Those restrictions led the League to temporarily suspend operations in Florida during the last general election cycle and to accuse the state GOP of trying to suppress the vote.
A federal court eventually struck down the part of 1355 that affected those voter registration groups and they resumed their operations.
“Florida is the poster child for why this country needs Section 5,” Macnab said Wednesday. “Section 5 made it possible to slow down the manipulation of our voting laws for partisan purposes. It was our only way to fight reprehensible laws that were going to make it harder for minorities and young people to vote.”
“Those laws also led to the reduction in early voting days that led to some people standing in line for almost eight hours and that made us the laughing stock of the nation, too,” Macnab added.
The federal courts did not change the reductions in early voting days, but GOP state leaders, including Gov. Rick Scott, who signed 1355, have said they will increase the number of early voting days, after an outcry from voters.
But Durham, who handles issues arising from Section 5 in Collier County, says he favors it being struck down. He explained that the five Florida counties covered by Section 5 were never accused of violent suppression of black voters, like that which occurred in other states.
Durham said the Florida counties were included in a 1975 expansion of the act that targeted counties that were not providing ballots in Spanish for Spanish-speaking voters.
“We don’t like being lumped in with people who turned attack dogs on blacks because they wanted to vote,” Durham said. “Ours was a language issue.”
Durham said Section 5 causes unneeded bureaucracy and delays in making small changes in electoral procedures.
‘Even if all we want to do is change an early voting site, it can take 60 days for them to pre-clear it,” Durham said. “It would benefit our voters to not have the pre-clearance requirement.’
Durham said Section 2, another part of the Voting Rights Act, provides enough ammunition to fight discrimination in the voting process.
But University of Miami law professor Charlton Copeland disagreed. Copeland said that it is Section 5 that allows review by the Justice Department before potentially discriminatory practices are put in place. He said depending on Section 2 would make blocking such changes much more expensive for the persons fighting them and those fights would take longer and might not be resolved before an election.
“Sometimes late justice is no justice at all,” Copeland said. “Section 5 is absolutely necessary.”
Copeland said he believes the answer for the Supreme Court may be ordering Congress to review which jurisdictions are covered by the Voting Rights Act, “but they should keep pre-clearance as part of the law.”
Joyce Griffin, supervisor of elections for Monroe County, another of jurisdictions covered by Section 5 , agreed.
“I’ve been working in this office for 28 years and always worked under Section 5,” she said. “What I’ve seen is that it adds a layer of protection for minorities.” She believes it shouldn’t be changed.