Black voters in Florida express fear, confusion as DeSantis’ election laws take effect

Black voters in Florida express fear, confusion as DeSantis’ election laws take effect


HOBE SOUND, Fla. — Geraldine Harriel usually helps her elderly parents vote by taking their ballots to the elections office for them. But Florida’s new voting law and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ election police have called it into question this year.

So last Sunday, she drove them to the early voting site — carefully guiding her 80-year-old mother, who walks with a cane, to the entrance, then pushing her 84-year-old father in a wheelchair along the same path.

“No one wants to risk being detained,” said Harriel, 65, referring to the police’s voting unit, which made the first arrests in August.

Police camera footage released on Oct. 18 shows frustrated Florida residents being arrested for crimes they didn’t know they had committed. (Video: The Washington Post)

Tuesday will mark Florida’s first major election since the Legislature pushed through changes affecting voting in the Sunshine State. Voter advocates say the laws disproportionately affect black voters — making it harder for many to vote — and have created an environment of confusion and fear.

Voters can submit ballots for immediate family members – but there are new forms to fill out and some like Harriel worry that even a small mistake could result in a fine or arrest. It is now illegal to hand in more than two ballots that do not belong to a close relative. There are new restrictions on organizations that help with voter registration. And soon after it began, DeSantis’ Office of Election Crimes and Security announced that deputies had made 20 arrests — 15 of which included black voters accused of voting illegally.

Arrested voters were charged with voting even though they did not meet the requirements to vote. State constitutional amendments give most people with prior felony convictions the right to vote. Several of those arrested say they thought they were qualified. They applied to register, got their voting cards and were never told they had done anything wrong until officials showed up to question them one summer afternoon.

“These laws are put in place to intimidate people, and that’s what’s happening,” said LaVon Bracy, Florida director of Democracy for Faith, a faith-based nonprofit that encourages civic participation. “People just ask, is it worth it?”

Supporters of the new laws and the election crimes office say these changes are needed to guarantee safe and fair elections — although there is no evidence of widespread fraud. 11.1 million Floridians voted in the 2020 election. The new police unit received only a few potentially problematic votes. A judge has already dismissed one case.

“Our efforts are designed to enforce existing laws and ensure that every legal vote counts,” said DeSantis press secretary Bryan Griffin. “It’s easy to vote in Florida, but it’s hard to cheat.”

The new laws were challenged in court. US District Judge in Florida shot down many of the most controversial changes earlier this year, in an opinion that cited the state’s “grotesque history of racial discrimination.” The DeSantis administration appealed, and an appeals court overturned the judge’s decision, leaving the laws in place for now.

For many years, Bracy delivered mail-in ballots to the election office for those who couldn’t make it to the polls and didn’t trust the U.S. Postal Service to get their votes in on time. The daughter of a Florida civil rights leader said she would pick them up at a church and at housing complexes for older voters who don’t drive.

“I was the one who collected hundreds of ballots, all legitimate ballots, to help people and get them to vote,” Bracy said. “Now I get calls from people saying ‘Ms. Bracy, can you come get my ballot?’ I say, ‘Sorry, no. I’m not going to risk getting a police record.’”

DeSantis calls what Bracy and other voter advocates have done for years to help deliver ballots “ballot harvesting,” and this year he signed legislation making it a third-degree felony punishable by $5,000 and up to five years prison.

The governor’s critics say he rigged Florida’s elections to favor his personal philosophy — that it’s best to vote in person — and give his party an edge. According to study of the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University.

“This is a ceremonial thing,” DeSantis said of the August vote. “You come in, you have a distributor, you make it, it’s a secret, you put it in a box and that’s how it should be. When you start running away from that and you have a whole bunch of people handling these ballots, that’s not the way you run an election.”

The new laws also affect groups that help with voter registration. Black residents traditionally register to vote through third-party groups more than any other demographic group, said Daniel A. Smith, an election expert at the University of Florida. Voter advocacy organizations often go to street fairs, churches and supermarkets — registering people who are eligible but may not go to the Department of Motor Vehicles because they don’t have a car.

But that started to change. Voter registration groups can now be fined up to $50,000 in Florida if found to have violated the law. The new laws include a requirement to post signs saying they may not submit registration forms on time.

In 2018, more than 96,000 people registered to vote through third-party organizations, Smith said. This year there are only about 31,000.

“This is a huge drop,” Smith said. “People are afraid of breaking the law in some way, and a lot of organizations don’t want to take that risk because it could basically bankrupt them.”

Another rule limits the times and places where ballot boxes – now called secure ballot stations – are available. Cecile Scoon, president of the Florida League of Women Voters, said the rule also disproportionately affects black voters.

“Given the multiple jobs that many African-Americans have and the shift work that they do, it will be impossible, or nearly impossible, for them to go out during regular business hours and use a locker,” Scoon said during a congressional subcommittee election. hearing in May.

Last November, Republicans overtook Democrats in the number of registered voters in Florida, and gap continued to spread. More than 5.2 million Republicans are registered for this election, compared to 4.9 million Democrats and 3.9 million with no party affiliation.

DeSantis began overhauling election laws shortly after narrowly winning his first race for governor in 2018. He beat Democrat Andrew Gillum by 32,463 votes out of more than 8 million voters — a 0.4 percent margin that was so close that a recount was needed.

Those elections were marred by dispute. Then-Gov. Rick Scott (R) referred to state authorities for investigation election officials in Palm Beach and Broward counties in their close race for a U.S. Senate seat against incumbent Bill Nelson (D) as well. Scott claimed that “there may be a big fraud” – although he provided no evidence to support the claim.

He received an endorsement from President Donald Trump, but state investigators have not filed any charges or found evidence of vote tampering.

Dozens of police were called in to guard the warehouse where Broward election officials were counting votes, while hundreds of protesters, mostly supporters of the former president, demonstrated outside. The chaotic scene made national news for days.

When he took office, DeSantis promised that those circumstances would not happen again. During his first weeks in office, he fired the election supervisor in Palm Beach County and accepted the resignation of her counterpart in Broward.

DeSantis and the GOP-led state legislature introduced other changes in 2019, including extending mail-in voting deadlines and requiring counties to have efficient voting machines. The 2020 election went smoothly in the state, and DeSantis called it the “gold standard” for the nation. Trump won Florida that year by more than three percentage points.

“Maybe 2020 was the year we finally beat the ghost of Bush vs. Gore,” DeSantis said the day after the election.

But he he said “it wasn’t perfect”, which is why new laws were needed.

Republicans also passed additional felon registration requirements, despite an amendment approved by 65 percent of Florida voters in 2018 that would have given felons the right to vote if they have served time and not been convicted of murder or sex crimes.

20 people arrested in August by the police’s new crime unit were convicted of those disqualifying offenses — but few he told the Washington Post that they have received the green light from election officials to vote. Shortly after the arrest, the state executed changes to the probation forms, adding a line noting that “you agree that you are solely responsible for determining whether you are legally able to register to vote and that you must only determine whether you are legally qualified to vote.”

DeSantis transformed not only election laws, but also the political boundaries for candidates. This year, he rejected his party’s redistricting congressional map and, for the first time as a Florida governor, had his staff draw the one he preferred. The DeSantis map favors the GOP and eliminates one district connecting eight counties with large black populations along the state’s northern border. It also reduced the size of another majority-minority district further south.

The changes were welcomed by Republicans both in Florida and across the country.

Florida GOP consultant Anthony Pedicini said the state’s elections are going well thanks to DeSantis, and he rejects allegations of voter suppression in the new laws. He said Republicans have overtaken Democrats in voter registration because DeSantis’ policies appeal to more people.

Despite complaints and lawsuits against the new laws, Pedicini said, the state is making it easier to vote.

“You still have 30 days to vote by mail and 21 days to enter the polling station before the election and cast your vote. So in Florida, we have a tremendous amount of opportunities for people to vote, not only on Election Day, but in-person voting before Election Day and by mail,” Pedicini said. “If you can’t find a way to vote 30 days before an election, you probably don’t want to vote.”

Voting advocacy groups are holding fewer registration drives and not offering to pick up ballots, but have stepped up to get people to the polls on the day early voting opens in October. Faith in Florida has helped organize more than two dozen events across the state, reaching out to churches, mosques and temples. Many events were styled as block party celebrations where volunteers provided food, music, dancing and games for the children.

Johnny Henderson, 75, volunteered to drive to vote after listening to a Sunday sermon last week at New Mt. Zion in Hobe Sound. The pastor there, David George, said he doesn’t tell his congregants how to vote, just that they should vote, and offered a church van to take them to voting booths at a nearby library.

Henderson said he appreciates the volunteers who help people vote, but also help them understand the new election laws so they don’t get into trouble.

“It seems like every election a different law applies,” Henderson said. “I’m not criticizing, but it seems like they’re trying to make it harder to vote.”

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