Desmond Meade stood with his wife on the National Mall on that sunny Inauguration Day, listening to a speech delivered by a president he did not vote for. But he followed attentively, hoping to hear just a few words that might address a man like himself: African-American, one-time homeless, recovered from substance abuse, and formerly incarcerated. His felony status kept him from voting for Obama, because as a Florida citizen he is not eligible to vote at all. He would leave D.C. disappointed, not only because he heard nothing about felony disenfranchisement, but he also heard nothing from Obama about the unique problems impacting black men.
“If you’re going to go out there on a limb and talk about gay rights and gun control issues, then why can’t you make mention of the plight of African-American men who are not graduating, who are dying at very young ages and being disenfranchised?” asks Meade. “As an African-American president who doesn’t have to worry about being elected again, he should have at least said something.”
Since Obama didn’t, Meade is saying something, organizing in Florida on behalf of the 1.5 million people in the state who can’t vote due to felony convictions. He’s the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, comprising more than seventy organizations, most grassroots and community-based. Florida's disenfranchised voters total more than the combined population of both North and South Dakota. Their problems long preceded Obama and are far from resolved now that he has been re-elected. At the root is Florida’s state constitution, which prevents those with felony convictions from voting, holding office and in certain instances, even obtaining housing.
In addition, Gov. Rick Scott, the Tea Party’s golden neck charm, has rolled back reforms implemented by his predecessor Charlie Crist—reforms that restored voting rights for hundreds of thousands of former felons.
Felony disenfranchisement was far from the only voter problem suffered in Florida. The state’s electoral maladies in the last year read like a primer on how to best frustrate voters. They began with the passing of House Bill 1355, which among other things made voter registration drives prohibitively toilsome and which performed unnecessary surgery on the early voting period, including excising the “Souls to the Polls Sunday” that attracted legions of black voters in 2008. Come election day, long lines left elderly and disabled voters waiting up to five hours to vote in oven-like temperatures while overzealous poll watchers tried to block volunteers from giving them water.
But just as voter suppression schemes backfired on conservatives by provoking voters of color to turn out en masse, the totally avoidable problems caused by bad voter laws gifted voting rights activists with more momentum, more political capital and even a mandate to continue organizing in 2013. Today, Florida advocates are drawing up legislation that would establish a new bill of rights around voting for the state, mostly in response to the suppression.
“There have been so many shenanigans in Florida forever,” says Gihan Perera, executive director of Florida New Majority. “But now there is a real appetite for getting rid of the bad election policies and making permanent structural changes, looking at how the structure of voter suppression was racial, and then shifting the paradigm from conversations around voter fraud to establishing the right to vote as a fundamental right.”
Challenging Florida for the title of “Most Failed Elections State” is Virginia, which also suffered chaotically long lines, except there it was the freezer to Florida's oven. To make matters worse, there is no regular early voting process. It’s also one of only four states, among them Florida, that permanently disenfranchises those with felony convictions.
Organizers have had a tough time getting state legislators to focus on election improvements, says Tram Nguyen, associate director for Virginia New Majority, though a glance at the state’s legislation activist might suggest otherwise. After the 2008 election, Virginia legislators introduced bills aimed at election reform, including a voter ID bill that became law last year. This year, lawmakers have introduced over one hundred election reform bills. But while some are to make voting easier—by allowing early voting, for example, or providing more polling site resources—they also include “a slew of voter suppression bills,” says Nguyen.
“The bills we find most egregious ask for proof of citizenship for registration, call for stricter voter ID and gives the state access to the SAVE database.” The latter is a Department of Homeland Security database that conservative election officials want to use to purge people thought to be undocumented.
Virginia voting rights advocates at least have an ally in Congress. House Represe Gerry Connolly is reintroducing the FAST Voting Act, which among other things would allocate federal resources to states that can produce best practices and results for reducing long lines. The optics alone of voter lines winding for blocks—a reality for far too many—has led people to claim it is a form of voter suppression. At a voting rights forum in January hosted by Connolly, an attorney with the Advancement Project told the story of a working mother who came to her polling location four times, because the lines during each visit were too long for her to wait through during work breaks.
A major cause of long lines is Virginia’s sketchy voter registration system, which too often prevents people from signing in to vote because their names aren’t in the poll books. The ensuing hassles with poll workers holds up lines. To solve this problem, voting rights advocates are pushing for modernized voter registration, including portable or “universal” voter registration and Election Day registration. This would alleviate jams by allowing people to register once, perhaps online, and then ensuring that their information is updated automatically if they move, get married, or make other life changes. It also allows voters to register or correct mistakes in their file on Election Day rather than being blindsided with a provisional ballot.
But universal voter registration is almost universally panned by Republicans. In late January, Republican attorney Hans von Spakovsky and the Heritage Foundation rounded up a few conservative state secretaries—among them Kris Kobach of Kansas and Scott Gessler of Colorado, both notorious for trampling on voting rights—for a panel titled “The Threat to Election Integrity of ‘Universal’ Registration.” There, Gessler railed off a myth claiming that Oregon got rid of same-day registration after a cult used it to “take over a town.”
He could only have been referring to a 1984 case in which followers of the charismatic spiritual speaker Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh brought homeless people to Oregon in a plot to rig an election by abusing the state’s Election Day registration provision. The attempt was unsuccessful, but it did spook Oregon legislators into rescinding same-day registration. Of course, that was almost 30 years ago, and many improvements have been made to the system since.
Coincidentally, on the same day of Heritage’s panel, the Brennan Center for Justice held a panel on voter registration modernization, featuring none other than Oregon’s state secretary Kate Brown. There, Brown boasted that Oregon is currently the only state that is completely vote by mail—what they call “universal ballot delivery”—and one of a few states that offers online voter registration. “I don’t believe that registration should be a barrier to participation,” she said. This was a sharp contrast to Gessler at the Heritage Foundation, who cast universal voter registration as a threat to states’ rights. “This is not a homogenous nation,” he said, insisting that those “who celebrate diversity” (apparently not him) “should respect it in other areas, including geographical diversity.”
There’s not much diversity among those who bear the brunt of registration mishaps and long-line waits. Back in Florida, a study recently found that at least 201,000 people failed to vote last November due to long lines, and that the worst areas were found in Latino communities.
This is why a Florida coalition that includes Advancement Project, Mi Familia Vota, Florida New Majority, the Florida Consumer Action Network and the Florida Immigrant Coalition is working to amend the Florida state constitution so that it guarantees voting accessibility for all citizens—a state-level voting rights act.
“We’re focusing on legislation that grants an explicit right to vote in Florida,” says Katherine Culliton-González, the director of the Advancement Project’s voter protection program. “It would aim at big picture issues and make voting a fundamental right so no election law changes could happen that would take us back in time.”
Could Florida learn from Virginia activists fighting felon disenfranchisement? Edgardo Cortés, director of the Advancement Project's Voting Rights Restoration Campaign in Virginia, has been working on this issue with dozens of organizations around the state, including the NAACP and the ACLU. The groups have successfully pushed Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell to streamline the tedious application process for ex-offenders to have their rights restored. As of January 10, Governor McDonnell has restored the voting rights of more people than any governor preceding him, 4,423.
Of course, that’s nothing compared to the 350,000 Virginians disenfranchised due to felony convictions. Governor McDonnell made a surprising move this year when he announced his support for the automatic restoration of voting rights for non-violent felony offenders, but fellow Republicans in the general assembly have not honored his request. Even the state’s far-right attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, has come out in favor of automatic restoration for ex-offenders, saying the state has engaged in a foul practice of “felony creep,” where low-level, nonviolent crimes are inflated from misdemeanors to felonies, leading to more disenfranchisement. Right now you can be charged with a felony for bouncing a check.
“I think really the only thing that will cause change there is the governor and the higher-ups and state leadership within the parties saying, ‘Yes, we want to push this and we want to get this law passed,” says Cortés. That, and an executive order from Governor McDonnell which would give blanket restoration to the 350,000 without the right to vote.
The same could be done in Florida, except neither the governor nor the state legislators are poised to move on felony disenfranchisement. Which is why Desmond Meade and his coalition are pushing for a ballot initiative to restore voting rights for ex-offenders. Their mobilizing strategy includes trying to locate most or all of the 1.5 million disenfranchised ex-offenders in the state and ask them to find ten friends or family members who will vote for the ballot referendum on their behalf.
“Part of the reason there has been low turnout in black communities is that the issues and candidates that [political parties] try to turn African-Americans out for have been abstract,” says Meade. “These are not individuals or issues the black community can wrap their arms around or sink their teeth into. We’re not talking about issues that would directly impact them and they can see the results. Even when they elected Obama the first time we ran into a lot of African-Americans who said, ‘We got a black president but it looks like our situation got worse. Our conclusion is that with this ballot initiative, this is something that is up close and personal to the black community.”
In other words, rather than asking people to come out and vote for Candidate X, they’re asking people to vote for their brother, sister, father, cousin or friend. There’s nothing that sounds more fundamentally right than that.