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Profiles of the Disenfranchised: Floridians as 'Voter Supression' Guinea Pigs

Behind the political strategies of the GOP millions of real people will lose their right to vote. Here are just four of them.

- Common Dreams staff

As a companion to his ongoing reporting on the Republican strategy to enact restrictive voting laws around the country, The Guardian's Ed Pilkington compiled profiles of four Floridians to showcase the nefarious impact such laws -- if left unchallenged or upheld by courts -- will have on millions of American voters this year and beyond.

Florida has proven to be a 'testing ground for voter suppression techniques across the country', according to the NAACP. (Photograph: Marc Serota/Reuters) "We are seeing a dramatic assault on voting rights, the most significant pushback on democratic participation that we've seen in decades," said Wendy Weiser of the non-partisan thinktank the Brennan Center for Justice, and the co-author of the definitive study of US voter suppression in the 2012 election cycle. "These laws could make it harder for millions of eligible American citizens to participate, particularly in swing states."

Florida is only one of many states were GOP lawmakers have pushed so-called 'Voter ID' laws or enacted legislation that purges once eligible voters from the rolls.

"The epicentre of the attack sweeping across America is Florida," writes Pilkington, "which has a long history of voter suppression."

"Even relatively minor distortion of electoral turnout," he continues, "could have huge implications not just for the result in Florida but, given the state's prominent role in determining the outcome of recent presidential elections, the whole of the US, and – by extension – the world."

*  *  *

Four "purged" Florida voters by Ed Pilkington:

Archie Bower

Archie Bowyer, 91, Orlando

Archie Bowyer is about as American as anyone born in Canada could be. His father moved the family to Buffalo, New York when Archie was two and when he was about five he was granted US citizenship.

On 2 October 1942 he did his duty and enlisted to the US Navy, and spent the war years helping to care for returning wounded at military hospitals in Seattle and Hawaii. He's been performing another citizenly duty – voting - dilligently for so many years that he can no longer remember who he backed.

"I think I remember voting for Roosevelt," he says. "I probably voted for Eisenhower, and I may have voted for Clinton. JFK? Not so sure about that one."

Given all that, he was more than a little surprised to receive a letter dated 13 April 2012 from the local supervisor of elections. "Our office was notified that you may not be a US citizen. Failure to respond may result in the removal of your name from the Florida voter registration system database."

Bowyer was one of 180,000 Floridians put on a so-called "purge list", having been singled out for possible removal from the voter register on the grounds that they were allegedly non-citizens who were destroying the integrity of the democratic process. The state whittled the list down to 2,700 names, Bowyer's still among them, which it sent to election supervisors to investigate.

The problem was, when supervisors began to look into the names they quickly realised that it was deeply flawed. Hundreds of voters provided proof of citizenship straight off the bat and only a few problems were found such as a handful of deceased voters.

In the outcry that followed, the election supervisors refused to carry out the review because the list was too unreliable and eventually Florida's secretary of state Ken Detzner said he would suspend the purge list. But not before alarm bells were ringing across Florida, a state known for its history of politically slanted voter purges.

More controversy lies ahead. A stand-off between the Obama administration and the Florida Republicans ended last week with the government allowing Florida to access its federal database of citizens, known as SAVE, which will now be used to reopen the state's effort to purge its rolls.

As for Bowyer, even at his ripe age he is vowing not to take the affront lying down. "I'm going to fight them! They look at me as though I was poison or a liar or something, and they don't have any right to question me.

"I'm a better citizen than any of them. I've given my share to this country, I've been in service, I've never caused any trouble, never shot anyone or stolen anything. I'm not going to quit."

Desmond Meade, 45, Hialeah

'I kind of relate it to slavery' Link to this video

 

Desmond Meade has paid his debts for the wrongs he committed as a drug addict. He's been to prison, served his time, done his parole and is now a free, sober and fully contributing member of society.

That's not good enough for the state of Florida. Last year, in one of his first acts in office, the Tea Party-backed governor Rick Scott reimposed restrictions that make it virtually impossible for anyone with a felony conviction ever to vote.

"They are telling me I am no longer an American, because I made a mistake. They are taking my citizenship away by removing my voice, being able to vote," Meade says.

The disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions – or "returning citizens" as Meade prefers to call himself – is one of the most egregious forms of voter suppression in Florida. A recent report by the Sentencing Project found that the number of former felons who have been stripped of their voting rights is at record levels this year. Florida, where the ban is effectively for life, has disenfranchised more people than anywhere else in the country.

Governor Scott's move to reimpose restrictions means that about 1.3 million Floridians who have fully served their sentences are not going to be able to vote in November. That includes more than 400,000 Floridians who like Meade are African American – a demographic group that votes overwhelmingly Democrat.

In a state that Barack Obama won with fewer than 250,000 votes in 2008, and which George Bush famously took in 2000 with an official lead over Al Gore of just 537, that's a big deal, with potentially huge ramifications.

"Because of what happened in Florida, the world had to deal with Bush, with the war on terror, and the invasion of Iraq. If voters hadn't been purged from the voter list because they were called felons we would not have had any of that," Meade says.

His own disenfranchisement also hurts him personally. It means he will not be able to practice at the Florida bar when in two years he finishes the law course he is studying.

He could circumvent the problem by moving to a state that does not disenfranchise former prisoners. But he doesn't like the idea of that. "That's like the days of slavery, when people had to leave the slave states to gain their freedom. I don't want to be a slave; I'm going to stay in Florida and fight until we remove this life-time ban."

Meade fell into cocaine and alcohol addiction in the 1990s and was sentenced to 15 years in prison after a gun was found in his group home (it wasn't his, but he still took the rap). He beat the sentence down to three years, and since 2004 has been entirely sober and worked in a number of voluntary projects before taking up law.

Most of the "felons" who have had voting rights removed were convicted, he points out, for non-violent offences that include in Florida the crime of burning tyres. "So if I burn tyres in this state I am no longer an American citizen? Come on! That's what's going on in Florida."

He's not looking forward to election day on 6 November. "Despite the strides I've made in my life I'm being told I'm not good enough to vote. There's going to be an emptiness inside me."

Mamie Graye, 71, Orlando

'I don't think he should be in a position to stop us voting' Link to this video

 

Mamie Graye recalls 2 November 2008 as a day of great joy, when she and her fellow worshippers at the New Covenant Baptist church in Orlando, Florida came together on the last Sunday before polling day to elect America's first black president.

"Everyone from the church turned up to vote. After we'd prayed together, we loaded up cars and buses and vans, and headed to the polls. It was a real good feeling," she says.

This November may not be quite so joyous. In one of the rule changes imposed by Republican politicians over the past 18 months, voters will no longer be able to cast their ballot on the last Sunday before election day.

The governor Rick Scott said the change was needed to save money. But in the process he destroyed what in recent years has become something of an African American tradition in Florida.

They call it "souls to the polls" day. Congregations of black churches across the state gather on the Sunday preceding election day and after service go together to the polling stations to cast their early votes.

In 2008, nearly 54% of the 1.1 million black Floridians who cast their votes did so early. Within the community, some 96% backed Barack Obama, helping him take the state and with it the presidency.

Graye is livid about the rule change. "The governor is crazy," she says. "He has taken souls to the polls away from us and he shouldn't be allowed to do that."

Aged 71, Graye was brought up during the days of segregation in Florida and can remember being made to sit at the back of the bus and eat on the pavement outside restaurants. She heard her mother tell much worse stories from her youth, of "burnings and beatings and lynchings".

So she is hyper alert to any sign of hard-fought rights being whittled down. "We as a people are trying to catch up, but he [Rick Scott] wants to keep everybody in the background."

The New Covenant church was founded 20 years ago and now has a largely African American congregation of more than 2,000. Its co-founder Lavon Bracy, who has organised "soul to the polls" drives, said last Sunday voting had greatly increased black turnout.

And that, Bracy believes, is precisely the reason for removing last Sunday voting. "They want to make certain the state of Florida is not Democratic. So they've done everything they can to make sure the turnout is low among African Americans and minorities."

Mamie Graye says the rule change has made her all the more determined to get out to vote, and to persuade other members of the congregation to do likewise. "I feel that if they are going to take away the last Sunday, we don't want to slip through the cracks. We don't want to go backwards, we want to continue to move forwards."

Booker Perry, 62, Rockledge

'A lot of people don't know the laws' Link to this video

 

Of all the people in need of a political voice in today's hard times, the 300,000 or so Floridians who have lost their homes over the past 12 months must be high up on the list. Yet as a result of a procedural change introduced last year many of them may find themselves unable to vote come November.

Take Booker Perry, 62, who recently retired as a firefighter. He was evicted from his home on 21 December last year having lived and reared his kids there for more than 30 years. After he was foreclosed he discovered that he only had $2,000 left owing on his mortgage.

"When I found that out, I was stunned that the bank would have foreclosed the property with just $2,000 on the balance," he says.

Perry is relatively well versed in the complexities of Florida's electoral laws. But even he was not fully aware of the legal trap that the Republican-controlled Florida state government sprang last year.

The 2011 law, HB 1355, put an end to a long-standing policy that allowed people who had changed address to register the move at the polling station on election day. Under the new rules, unless you register in advance you will no longer be able to cast a regular ballot.

That potential pitfall is likely to catch many of the 92,405 households that had their properties foreclosed in Florida over the past year – Perry among them. After his eviction he left Orange County and moved to Brevard County where he is in temporary accommodation, rendering him vulnerable to the rule change.

When Perry learnt how the law had been modified, he expressed anger. "They are adding kinks into the system that will make it harder for people to vote.

"When you've had your home foreclosed you are in survival mode. You're worrying about finding shelter for your family, about where your next meal is coming from; you're not thinking about voting."

Perry has begun moves that should see him properly registered at his new address by November. But he remains fearful for many thousands of other victims of foreclosure who have already suffered enough and do not need the added wound of disenfranchisement.

Having spent a lifetime as a firefighter, he's also angered by the attitude of those who legislated HB 1355. "We've always responded to fires no matter what the person's standing in the community. I've responded to all types of people – homeless, people living in wealthy mansions. We indiscriminately serve people, and I expect the government to do the same."

 

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