Florida won’t go quietly

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Florida won’t go quietly

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In Florida, the controversial governor, Rick Scott, has overseen a range of measures restricting voting. Many polling stations experienced chaos on election day (photo: Shooting Chris)

Maybe it’s a tragic desire for attention, maybe it’s a cry for help (democracy is tough!), maybe it’s a heady mix of corruption and incompetence. In any case, my home state of Florida is trying its best to relive the glories of the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W Bush. We’re still counting votes.

You remember 2000: 35 fun-filled days of hanging chads, disenfranchised voters and lawsuits, until the Supreme Court finally stepped in and chose Bush. Florida hadn’t had so much excitement since the last election we stole, back in 1876. You can’t blame us for wanting to recapture the glory days.

But this time, Barack Obama’s been re-elected without us. Although Florida is the last to declare a winner (Obama will take the state by a whisker), it really doesn’t matter. Ohio and Virginia already sealed the deal. Don’t expect us to go quietly. Newspapers, pundits and officials from the White House down are criticising Florida’s messy election practices: the long, long queues to vote, the confusion over what identification is required, the lack of adequate poll workers and the malfunctioning machines. Florida’s Republican leaders remain defiant.

It isn’t 2000, but it isn’t pretty, either. A historian at the University of South Florida, David Johnson, went to cast his ballot on the way to taking part in a panel on disenfranchisement. But when he arrived to vote, he found his name had been removed from the rolls. Some voters in Palm Beach County had to queue for eight hours. The nonpartisan League of Women Voters reports that many elderly people could not stand for the long waits in densely populated south Florida and left without casting a ballot. In an email to the League, one woman wrote, “There is something very stupid about the system of voting here in Florida.”

“Stupid” is one word for what’s going on. I’m partial to “deliberate” and “criminal,” too. Governor Rick Scott, former CEO of a private hospital corporation which defrauded the federal government and was slapped with the largest fine ($1.7bn) in history, has been doing his best to gum up the electoral works. Along with the Republican legislature, Scott baldly tried to suppress Democratic votes. He reversed an earlier governor’s decision allowing convicts who’d served their time to participate in the election. He shortened the early voting period, popular with hourly wage earners, students, minorities and pensioners.

Scott and the legislature tried to restrict groups registering new voters, threatening them with large fines. They started purging the electoral rolls of “non-citizens.” The courts reversed attempts to freeze registration, and newspaper investigations revealed that most of the alleged aliens were, in fact, citizens. Decorated second world war veterans, hordes of housewives and a lot of people with Latino-sounding surnames received official letters demanding they prove they were real Americans or face arrest if they tried to vote.

Two days after Mitt Romney conceded, Florida’s still fighting. Allen West, the volcanic congressman famous for insisting there were 80-odd card-carrying communists in the House of Representatives masquerading as members of the Democratic party, is currently 2500 votes behind challenger Patrick Murphy. West refuses to concede, muttering darkly about Democratic plots to steal his seat. He now looks like a dinosaur. The Tea Party tsunami of 2010 has nearly dried up across the country. Only four senate candidates endorsed by the Tea Party Express won their elections this year.

Florida is changing, and so is the nation. The coalition of progressives, African Americans, women, students and Latinos which elected Barack Obama in 2008 and again in 2012 represents the new majority. On Fox News, the talking heads may still exhort the faithful to “take our country back,” but America’s not going back. In a few days we’ll focus once again on the normal stuff: early Christmas shopping and the big football game between Florida State and Virginia Tech. But in Florida, where people turned out in record numbers to vote, we won’t forget.

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Diane Roberts is a professor of English at Florida State University and a commentator for National Public Radio. 




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