It’s Florida, stupid

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It’s Florida, stupid

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The outcome of the presidential election could be decided by the Sunshine State—again

As the great baseball player and master tautologist Yogi Berra remarked, “it’s like déja vu all over again.” This year’s presidential contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney threatens to become a replay of Florida’s inglorious election imbroglio of 2000, those heady five weeks when the state counted and recounted votes, chased butterfly ballots, and examined pregnant chads to figure out who had actually won: George W Bush or Al Gore. It was not an edifying spectacle. Jimmy Carter, the former president whose Atlanta-based Carter Center sends election observers to the likes of Paraguay, Nicaragua and East Timor, declared that the “basic international requirements for a fair election are missing in Florida.” Fidel Castro called Florida a “banana republic.” The rest of the world began to refer to the state as “FloriDUH.” The result of this year’s presidential election could come down to Florida once more and the way it is arrived at could be just as unsatisfactory as in 2000.

Thanks to improved voting technology, Florida no longer has chads to dimple, dangle or otherwise, and happily, the butterfly ballot is extinct. But Florida has not become the model of democracy all parties promised post-2000. Both Democrats and Republicans anticipate trouble on 6th November, election day, and perhaps beyond. Bill Daley, the former White House chief of staff, has warned the Obama campaign team they’d better marshal their legal forces for a likely recount; Ben Ginsberg, who worked for George W Bush during the last recount battle, says Republicans will “have enough lawyers to handle all situations” in Florida. Republicans raise the spectre of voter fraud, with felons and foreigners illicitly swinging the election in favour of Democrats and Barack Obama. Democrats say the real problem is voter suppression, pointing to neo-Jim Crow restrictions imposed by Republicans. All this takes place against the backdrop of Florida’s swelling Latino population—in pursuing “illegal” voters, Republicans risk alienating a crucial constituency.

In 2000, 12,000 Floridians were wrongly disenfranchised. The private company hired to “clean up” the state’s electoral rolls, striking off people who were dead or felons or otherwise ineligible, made a mess of the job. Not that the candidate’s brother Governor Jeb Bush or Secretary of State Katherine Harris seemed overly concerned. The database was so slipshod that Floridians with the same birthdate as criminals incarcerated in another state were turned away from polling places. One Johnny Jackson, Jr, an upstanding Florida citizen by all accounts, got confused with one John Fitzgerald Jackson, who was serving time in a Texas prison. Violating the space-time continuum, several hundred people were listed as convicted of felonies some years in the future. Harris, at the time both Florida’s chief elections officer and co-chair of George W Bush’s Florida presidential campaign, was not only nonchalant about these “false positives,” she let it be known that she wanted more names to purge, not fewer. While African Americans made up 11 per cent of Florida’s electorate, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, they comprised nearly half of those removed from the voter lists. Since African Americans favoured Gore over Bush by 85 to 15 per cent, it’s a safe bet that if even a quarter of the disenfranchised had voted, the election would have had a different result. As it was, the United States Supreme Court declared Bush the winner in Florida by a total of 537 votes.

These days, Katherine Harris is a private citizen, and Jeb Bush is rumoured to be plotting a political future beyond 2012 when his surname may be a bit less toxic. Yet Florida is at it again. Charlie Crist, the moderate Republican (recently turned independent) who replaced Jeb Bush as governor in 2007, had relaxed Florida’s restrictions on voting by former felons, arguing that when they had paid their debt to society they should regain the rights of citizens. When hardliner Rick Scott took office in 2011, he overturned Crist’s more liberal policy—clearly too many of the wrong sort had been allowed to cast ballots in 2008, giving Florida to Barack Obama by 200,000 votes.

Scott and the Republican-controlled legislature pushed through new laws making it difficult for non-profit non-partisan groups such as the League of Women Voters and the Boy Scouts to sign people up to vote. Completed registration forms had to be presented at the county election supervisor’s office not one minute more than 48 hours from when they were signed, on pain of prosecution. In Okaloosa County, Florida, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People tried to register new voters during January’s Martin Luther King Day weekend, only to be threatened with a thousand dollars in fines and a possible third-degree felony—they failed to deliver their forms within 48 hours because the county offices were closed on Monday in observance of the federal holiday. The NAACP was soon contacted by the state elections chief: “We appreciate you going out and registering voters,” the letter read. “However, if you’re late anymore we’re going to turn this over to the Florida Department of Justice for prosecution.”

As soon as the law was implemented in May, new voter registration plummeted. While Florida’s population went up in the past four years, the number of people signing up for a voter card, without which they cannot cast a ballot, has gone down by 81,000. Several advocacy groups sued. An exasperated-sounding federal judge overturned much of the law, saying, “If the goal is to discourage voter registration drives and thus also to make it harder for new voters to register, this may work. Otherwise there is little reason for such a requirement.”

* * *

Unfortunately, the part of the law the judge didn’t throw out allows the state to restrict early voting. Formerly,  citizens could cast a vote at the county courthouse up to two weeks before the day of the election. This period has now been reduced to eight days. Florida’s Republican masters claim it’s a money-saving measure and anyway, there are still eight early voting days. Democrats, however, charge that Republicans want to depress turn-out by their voters, especially students, the elderly, hourly-wage workers who can’t afford to be off work for three or more hours standing in an election-day queue, and African Americans. In 2008, 54 per cent of early voters were black. The Sunday before election day when churches mobilise “Souls to the Polls” efforts was especially popular. This year, voting is also not allowed on the Sunday before election day. Ion Sancho, who is the elections supervisor of Leon County, Florida, predicts that, on election day, voters will have to wait several hours and that precinct workers will be overwhelmed, saying he fears Florida’s polling locations won’t be able to accommodate the 8m voters projected to turn out in the general election.

Republicans have not been sympathetic. Mike Bennett, state senator, argued that in Africa “the people in the desert literally walk two- and three-hundred miles so they can have the opportunity to do what we do, and we want to make it more convenient?”

However blatant these attempts to discourage the Democratic vote, watchdog groups say that they’re small beer compared to Republicans’ renewed attempts to purge the voter rolls. Last year, Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, ordered his secretary of state to scour the rolls for ineligible voters. He says he merely wants to make sure that everyone who casts a ballot is a genuine citizen of the US and not some border-jumping Mexican or smuggled Salvadoran, a dead person or perhaps a cartoon character (one “Mickey Mouse” did once attempt to register in Orlando, but failed). A preliminary cull of 182,000 names was dispatched to the state’s 67 county elections supervisors for verification. It did not take long before they noticed that the list was curiously light on white people and Republicans and heavy on African Americans, Latinos, and those registered as either independents or Democrats. Nevertheless, the supervisors did their jobs and while they failed to scare up any members of the Choir Invisible or denizens of Disney World, they did uncover a preponderance of dodgy characters such as: Maureen Russo and Manoly Castro-Williamson, two middle-aged ladies born in the exotic land of Ohio; some second world war veterans including a 91-year-old fellow named Bill Internicola who won the Bronze Star at the Battle of the Bulge; and a great many recently naturalised citizens eagerly looking forward to casting their first vote as Americans and rather taken aback to be ordered either to produce their papers or face jail time.

The problem with voter fraud (as practised by individual voters, at least) is that it barely exists. The Brennan Center has analysed instances of “voter fraud” over the last four election cycles and concludes that instances of it are rarer than being struck by lightning or attacked by a shark. In an attempt to disprove such studies, the Republican National Lawyers Association prepared its own finding, a whopping 311 cases of alleged voter fraud in the US over the past 15 years. Many of those cases were thrown out of court, others involved mistakes (registering twice, failing to report a change of address), a very few were actually prosecuted. An investigation by the Tampa Bay Times, Florida’s largest newspaper, revealed that of the state’s 11m enrolled voters, 86 non-citizens have been unmasked and 46 of those may have voted illegally at some point over the past couple of decades. No prosecutions have been brought. Not exactly an orgy of criminal behaviour at the ballot box. The Brennan Center concludes: “The voter fraud phantom drives policy that disenfranchises actual legitimate voters without a corresponding actual benefit.”

Nevertheless, Republicans remain convinced that the only way Democrats can win elections is by getting illegal aliens to vote. One Wisconsin state senator recently praised his state’s stringent new ID standards saying, “we believe the people who cheat are more likely to vote against us.” Many Republicans still believe Barack Obama won Florida in 2008 by “cheating” with the help of groups such as the now-defunct Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now (ACORN), which focused on registering the poor and members of ethnic minorities—and, according to bitter Republicans, illegal immigrant voters. Never mind the total lack of evidence; never mind that illegal immigrants usually prefer to keep a low profile and try to avoid doing things that would get them deported or sent to jail.

Legal immigrants, however, are another matter, and, in Florida especially, a legitimate source of Republican worry. The Democrats can count on the African-American vote, the women’s vote and a substantial amount of votes from Jews and pensioners. The Republicans know they’ll get most of the vote from white people (or, as Romney’s advisor would have it, “Anglo Saxons”), the affluent, anti-government Tea Party types and Christian evangelicals. Latino voters will decide who wins Florida.

In 2000, Cubans made up the largest group by far of Latinos in Florida. In 2012 there are almost as many Puerto Ricans (who are American citizens) as Cubans. The “I-4 Corridor” (so-called for the motorway which runs across the middle of Florida) has seen its population increase by nearly half a million in the last decade, of which 250,000 are Puerto Rican. Most of them lean Democratic.

It used to be that Democrats would barely bother trying to get Cuban votes: Cubans were militantly Republican, revering Ronald Reagan for standing up to Fidel Castro. But lately Democrats are making progress: in 2008, Barack Obama won 47 per cent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida. He got more than 60 per cent of the Puerto Rican vote. Recent polls indicate that Latinos in Florida—and nationally—favour Obama by about two to one. Republicans claim that’s only because Obama has pandered to them, appointing Sonia Sotomayor, a Puerto-Rican American, to the Supreme Court and declaring that he would not deport those who were brought to the US illegally as children. Though Republicans point to some of their prominent Cuban-American politicians, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Senator Marco Rubio to name two from Florida, the party has done itself no favours with its refusal to help with the passage of the DREAM Act, which would allow young undocumented people to join the US military or go to university as legal residents. Nor have Republican-run states such as Alabama and Arizona, with their unabashedly xenophobic new immigration laws, helped. Arizona’s notorious sheriff Joe Arpaio, who described Mexicans as “dirty” and who spent taxpayer money sending his “posse” to Hawaii to “prove” that Barack Obama’s birth certificate was a “fraud,” is currently on trial for detaining Latinos—or people he thinks look sort of like Latinos—without probable cause. Even if, despite the fond dreams of Democrats, the home state of Senator John McCain will not be in play during this election, the publicity surrounding Arpaio, the “your papers, please” legislation, and the ban on teaching the history of Latinos in Arizona schools, has helped drive Latinos firmly into the arms of Democrats.

This is frustrating to Republicans who realise their party cannot survive if it remains an angry old white men’s club. After all, the US is projected to become a “majority minority” nation by 2060, by which time Latinos will form the single largest ethnic group. Jeb Bush, recast by default as a “moderate” (he’s also a fluent Spanish speaker married to a Mexican American), suggested that Mitt Romney needs to ditch the Tea Party rhetoric: “Don’t just talk about Hispanics and say immediately we must have controlled borders. It’s kind of insulting.”

The general election is just two months away and what happens in Florida may depend on what happens in the courts. Voting rights groups are suing over access to the polls before election day; the governor is urging supervisors of elections to keep purging their lists, though federal law forbids that within 90 days of an election. Because of Florida’s Old South segregationist past—its unconstitutional disenfranchisement of former slaves in 1877, its implementation of poll taxes and literacy tests, its long, hateful history of denying people of colour the vote—the Department of Justice, under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, will have the final say over the way in which Florida votes. No matter what happens, just about everybody believes that the election will come down to whoever gets their voters out—and which votes get counted.

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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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