Around noon on a windy fall Sunday, the motorcade began forming. Dozens of African-Americans, ranging in age from 5 to 85, poured out of the three-story New Covenant Baptist Church and into a coughing, 20-year-old bus, a cramped church van and their cars.
The caravan snaked down Rio Grande Avenue and turned onto Kaley Street, passing beat-up buildings and old houses downtown. Ten minutes later, it stopped at the county election supervisor's office, where 150 church members filed inside to cast their ballots, all for Barack Obama.
“It was like a crusade,” remembers Randolph Bracy, a charismatic, athletic, 67-year-old minister. “There was great pride. We were going to vote for the first African-American president.”
That was “Souls to the Polls” 2008 in Orlando. It can't happen this year.
In a brazen attempt to steal this fall's election, Florida's Republican lawmakers have outlawed voting on Sunday, an African-American tradition. Indeed, across the United States, from Montana to Maine and Texas to Tennessee, 41 states have recently passed or introduced laws to restrict voter registration and early voting, and generally limit suffrage.
It's the greatest show of racially fueled political chicanery since turn-of-the-century laws banned scores of African-Americans from casting ballots. More than 5 million voters — largely nonwhite — could be kept from the polls, according to New York University's Brennan Center for Justice.
“When Jim Crow was passed, [segregationists] said because of this plan, the darkie will be eliminated as a factor in elections in five years,” says Benjamin Jealous, the NAACP's national president and CEO. “We beat that. But now these state governments are doing the same thing, disenfranchising entire blocks of black and Hispanic voters.”
For decades, Southern states barred African-Americans from voting through white supremacist tricks such as literacy tests. That practice mostly ended in 1965, after America watched cops gassing and clubbing voting-rights demonstrators marching from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., and Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. The law, said President Lyndon B. Johnson, was “a turning point in man's unending search for freedom.”
In the years that followed, there were more attempts to cheat minorities at the polls. One was a law in many states that blocked felons from voting and made it difficult to get reinstated on the voter rolls. Largely because of zero tolerance for drug crimes, this measure affected one in 12 black men.
A new scam started in Arizona in 2004, when voters approved a law to require not only an ID to cast a ballot but also proof of citizenship to register. The measure has been plodding through the courts ever since, and the citizenship provision recently was ditched. But Judge Harry Pregerson of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court, who heard the case on appeal, noted, “Intimidation keeps Latino voters away from the polls.”
In 2006, Missouri required voters to show a state or federal ID at the polls. It sounded logical. But supporters failed to emphasize that a quarter of blacks and almost as many Latinos lack this documentation. “The absurdity of these rules was pretty clear,” says Missouri secretary of state Robin Carnahan. “A Supreme Court judge said he was old and had let his license expire. Could he vote? And we had a member of Congress who couldn't use his congressional ID to vote.”
The Missouri Supreme Court threw out that measure, but two other states — Indiana and Georgia — passed their own ID requirements, which the U.S. Supreme Court has since rubber-stamped.
These earlier attacks pale in comparison to last year's blitzkrieg, when Republicans — who had taken control of 57 state House and Senate chambers in 2010 — began to contemplate this fall's presidential election. They had seen minority voters turn out en masse to vote for Obama, and they were determined to turn the tide.
In just the past 18 months, 13 states have passed laws that require voters to show ID. In several of those locales, including Minnesota, the governor vetoed the bills, but most of the others likely will take effect before this fall's presidential election.
In Texas, which is under federal scrutiny because of past attempts to dupe minorities, the U.S. Department of Justice blocked the measure. Twenty percent of that state's voters are Latino — and are far more likely to lack photo IDs, the feds found. The law, says Camila Gallardo, national spokeswoman for Latino rights organization La Raza, was “an affront to everyone. They are attacking the core of our democracy, which is open participation.”
Gallardo was born in Santa Clara, Calif., to a Cuban-American family. She points out that her grandmother, who emigrated from the island nation long ago, never needed a driver's license or bothered with a passport but has been allowed to vote in that state because she is a citizen. California is one of the few states that has stayed clear of the great anti-minority backlash.
On the other side of the nation, however, Florida has moved to the top of the class when it comes to discrimination. Federal courts are considering the Republican leadership's attempts to not only outlaw Sunday voting but also severely limit voter registration.
The laws being challenged, for instance, require anyone who helps voters sign up with the state to submit all registration documents within 48 hours. Last week, a federal judge in Tallahassee blocked some parts of the law but let stand others — such as the prohibition on Sunday voting. To date, the registration requirements have proven so difficult to meet that even groups such as the Boy Scouts of America have given up on registering voters this year.
Among the victims of the Florida law: Jill Cicciarelli, a New Smyrna Beach high school teacher who last year tried to register several of her students. She had been out on maternity leave, ran afoul of the new law, and was threatened with thousands of dollars in fines. “I just wanted the kids to be participating in our democracy,” she says.
More significant, these laws have had a direct impact on minorities. The number of Latinos registered to vote in Florida, for instance, has fallen by 10 percent since 2008. (Nationally, there are 2 million fewer minority voters now than in 2008.) Florida, says Howard Simon, executive director of the state's ACLU, is attempting to “gut the Voting Rights Act.”
Is all of this enough to propel Mitt Romney to victory over Barack Obama? Well, the president received 96 percent of the black vote in 2008 and more than two-thirds of the Latino vote. And Florida is the nation's largest swing state. Many of the measures, like those in Arizona, Texas and Minnesota, are under review by courts or face public votes in the future. “The fate of these laws,” says the NAACP's Jealous, “will determine that of our country for years to come.”
Chuck Strouse is editor in chief of Miami New Times.