LaVon Bracy, 63, understands the stakes in Florida’s current voting rights battle all too well. Her father, the Rev. Thomas Wright, is a civil rights luminary and former NAACP president who spent much of the 1960s fighting segregation, often under threat of death. When his chapter of the NAACP sued Alachua County Public Schools to desegregate, a teenage Bracy sacrificed her senior year to help integrate a white school. She has no fond prom memories; instead she remembers the people spitting in her face, the regular chants of “nigger” that greeted her, and the beating she took from a group of white male students, who went unpunished.
Bracy’s beating was so traumatic that she stayed home from school for the next three days wondering whether to go back. But in the end, she returned. Bracy told the Voices of the Civil Rights project, “I refused to allow them to win.”
That was her thought this spring, too, as she plunged the New Covenant Baptist Church—the Orlando congregation she leads with her husband—into a voter registration campaign more dangerous than it has been in a generation.
In May 2011, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law HB 1355, a bill that once again put Florida at the center of the national debate over free and fair elections. The law dramatically changed the rules for both early voting and voter registration, creating a proc- ess so complex and legally risky that groups like the League of Women Voters opted out of registering in the state altogether. Instead they sued, charging that the law is unconstitutional and violates the National Voter Registration Act. In late May of this year, a federal judge blocked the law’s most controversial provisions pending a trial. (In June, in a separate case, the Justice Department sued Florida to stop Secretary of State Ken Detzner from purging the rolls of 2,600 alleged noncitizens, hundreds of whom have since been shown to be legal voters.)
HB 1355’s still unfolding story offers a stark example of the changes that have taken place in the conversation about voting rights nationally over the past two years. Besides Florida, dozens of other states have passed or debated onerous changes to their voting rules since 2010. Advocates of these measures claim that the true threat to democracy isn’t low voter registration or turnout—it’s fraudulent voting.
But as the Florida ACLU recently pointed out, voter fraud is rarer than shark attacks in the state, a claim backed up by PolitiFact, which found just forty-nine investigations of fraud in Florida since 2008. In June the Orlando Sentinel reported that 178 cases of alleged voter fraud had been referred to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement since 2000, with just eleven arrests and seven convictions. So if fraud is virtually a nonexistent problem, what does Florida’s HB 1355 accomplish?
As its sponsor, State Senator Mike Bennett, made clear when the bill passed last year, its intent is to make voting more difficult. “I don’t have a problem making it harder,” Bennett said. “I want people in Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who walks 200 miles across the desert. This should not be easy.”
If reinstated, Bennett’s bill could unravel years of work by voting rights activists like Bracy to tear down the barriers that discourage African-Americans, Latinos and young people in particular from participating in our democracy. The law mandated for the first time in Florida’s history that people who conduct voter registration drives must themselves register with the state before signing up new voters. Once they register a new voter, they have forty-eight hours to submit that registration to the county under exacting specifications. Late or improper applications can result in stiff fines or even felony fraud charges and jail time. These requirements were burdensome enough to scare away even national groups with sophisticated processes for ensuring their registrations are valid. As the League of Women Voters’ Florida chapter president, Deirdre McNab, told MSNBC’s Al Sharpton, “These new laws frighten people from registering voters.”
The racial impact of Bennett’s bill is clear. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, black and Latino Floridians are more than twice as likely as white voters to register to vote through community-based voter registration drives. In 2008, more than 1.1 million black voters cast ballots in Florida, a record turnout driven in no small part by registration campaigns led by black churches. Of course, 96 percent voted for Barack Obama.
“They know they put these regulations in there to discourage people,” Bracy said. “They put these laws in with the idea that, ‘If we discourage enough of them, Florida will not be in Obama’s camp this year.’”
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Bracy’s father probably couldn’t have imagined that his daughter would one day help to elect the first African-American president. But there she was, in 2008, decked head-to-toe in “Vote Obama” regalia at the Democratic National Convention in Denver as an elected delegate. The Obama campaign “would have these young, techie college students who needed only two hours of sleep a night, who would work twenty-two hours, and I knew all of them,” Bracy said about the campaign’s Orlando offices. “I had them over my house to feed them, and we talked strategy and had house parties. We were just wired up.”
Though she’s required to keep her political work separate from her church work for IRS reasons, all of Bracy’s associations—community, church and political—could easily have been an impetus for passing HB 1355. The law strikes directly at an enormously popular event that brought thousands of black churchfolk in congregations like hers straight to the polls.
Souls to the Polls—an early voting event led by black chur- ches—turned voting into a cultural, even spiritual experience for many black voters. Early voting itself started in response to the Bush v. Gore debacle in 2000, which was exacerbated by voters having to wait in long lines at polling places. In 2002, counties were allowed to implement early voting systems at their discretion to eliminate this problem. In 2004, a statewide early voting system was set up, allowing voting to take place in the two weeks leading up to election day. On the Sunday before the election, choirs and preachers gave their best performances during morning services to get churchgoers motivated to vote that day. Thousands came out, including about 200 from Bracy’s church, which has roughly 1,200 active members.
Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, at the time a state legislator in Miami, helped organize Souls to the Polls in southern Florida in 2008 and remembers “food at the polls and music and gospel singing, so people enjoyed themselves while waiting. They served fried chicken, barbecue and fish sandwiches. It was great. We were voting in the first black president.”
Almost 54 percent of black Floridians voted early in 2008. A third of all early voters on the Sunday before election day were African-Americans; a quarter were Latinos. Obama proceeded to win Florida by just under 3 percentage points, much of that due to winning Orange County—which includes the city of Orlando—by the largest margin of any Democratic candidate in sixty-four years.
Registration was way up as well. In 2008 there were 1,468,682 African-American Floridians registered to vote for the general election, about 84 percent of whom registered as Democrats. There were twice as many registered black Democrats in 2008 as the total number of registered African-Americans in 1994, and more than the total number registered in 2004. This was largely thanks to community-led registration drives, responsible in both 2004 and 2008 for registering twice as many black and Latino voters as whites.
In addition, black and Latino turnout was boosted by then-Gov. Charlie Crist’s 2007 restoration of ex-offenders’ voting rights. Before 2007 Florida was one of three states that permanently disenfranchised all people convicted of felonies. But Crist amended the law so that nonviolent felons could more easily have their voting rights restored. More than 150,000 Floridians regained the right to vote as a result, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
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One of Scott’s first moves upon becoming governor was to reverse Crist’s reforms. Now, those with nonviolent felonies must wait five years after release from jail before being considered for voting rights restoration and must have no new convictions during that time. Those convicted of violent felonies must wait seven years. If you have unpaid restitution, you’re ineligible for restoration—and even to apply for a hearing, you must obtain copies of all the original court documents connected to your case.
These changes have dramatically scaled back the number of people who do apply. As of March 1, 2011, one week before Scott signed the law, there were close to 99,000 pending clemency cases involving the restoration of civil rights. As of May 2012, there were only 22,958 cases pending.
The changes in the voter registration process were equally stark. LaVon Bracy walked me through how she became a third-party voter registrar under the new law. The process seemed custom-made for creating errors and provoking penalties.
To begin, Bracy first had to fill out Form DS-DE 119 and send it to her county supervisor of elections, who then approved her as a voter registration agent. After that, she was assigned an identification number, which had to be recorded on every voter registration application she collected so that each one could be traced back to her. She then had to fill out Form DS-DE 120, an affidavit swearing that she understands she’ll be charged with a felony—with a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment—if she attempts fraud. If she enlisted any staff or even walk-up volunteers for registration activities, they would also have to sign the affidavit acknowledging they understood the penalties.
When registering voters, she had to time-stamp each application so that the county knew exactly when the forty-eight-hour deadline clock started ticking for that specific registration. Within that forty-eight hours, Bracy made copies of each completed registration form and stored it in a white binder. She also had to review every application to make sure it was accurately filled out—because if anything was wrong, she could be charged with fraud.
She then physically transported the applications to the county. She could also mail them, but if any application arrived late, she’d be fined $50 per application ($250 if her tardiness was found “willful”). Other tardiness violations could raise the fines as high as $1,000 per application. If a completed application was lost in the mail or on the way to the county office, and someone else delivered it days later, that would elicit a fine. Also, the law demanded that registrars fill out monthly and quarterly reports on the number of people they registered, and would penalize them if they failed to hand in those reports on time.
Florida had turned what used to be a proud act of civic engagement into an experience as demanding as applying for a business loan and far more complicated than buying a gun. What’s more, these cumbersome rules do nothing to prevent deliberate fraud; they only increase the chances that mistakes are made—mistakes that can then be labeled evidence of attempted fraud to justify further restrictions on voting rights.
Although these rules are now blocked pending the resolution of the federal suit, they may have already had their intended effect. According to the New York Times, 81,471 fewer Floridians had registered to vote as of May 2012 than during the same period before the 2008 elections.
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When Bracy knocks on doors today, she finds people whose spirits are broken. Many of her voter registration appeals are rejected. She hears a lot of fears and concerns, much of it based on misinformation. “Some feel that registering to vote will interfere with their welfare check,” Bracy said, “or that you’ll be harassed when you’re registered to vote.”
The misinformation is serious enough that the state’s Division of Elections addresses it on a webpage, “Election Myths vs Facts,” which dispels notions like “If a voter owes child support or has pending warrants against him or her, the police will arrest the voter at the polls.”
These rumors, however, play on a deeply held set of emotions that scholars have long tracked within black and immigrant communities in the South—a well-founded distrust of local authority. In her 2012 book Trust in Black America: Race, Discrimination and Politics, Shayla Nunnally, a professor at the University of Connecticut, shows that African-Americans are far less likely than their white neighbors to trust their local government.
Given this distrust, the black church is the only institution capable of winning the confidence of many African-Americans when it comes to voter registration. That’s why black churches were able to get so many people out to vote during Souls to the Polls, which is credited with a jump in voter turnout as high as 30 percent on the Sunday before election day in 2008.
This year, on the Sunday after Easter, Bracy didn’t set up in the back of her church to register new voters as she normally does. She had to race to Gainesville, where her father had been hospitalized for cancer. Given his age (92), death was a real possibility, but not anything Bracy wasn’t prepared for. At the church, she hosts workshops helping families learn how to manage end-of-life issues concerning wills, estates and funeral contracts. She calls her workshops “Grave Matters”—and yes, she also registers new voters at them.
Whatever the outcome of the suit against HB 1355, Bracy is determined to continue the work that her father’s been doing since she was a toddler, and that she’s been doing since those boys jumped her in school: navigating all the tripwires and land mines set up to keep her community from participating in democracy.
As Congressional Black Caucus chair Emanuel Cleaver said recently, “The day is over when [black preachers] could just stand in the pulpit and say, ‘Go vote. It’s your duty.’ They’ve got to now be equipped with some sophisticated information to help inspire a turnout and protect parishioners from some of the schemes that are out there.”
Bracy put it differently. “Yes, this process is a pain in the neck,” she said. “But I refuse to let them win. I refuse to say, ‘I’m not going to do it because there are all these hoops.’ I decided I’m going to jump through the hoops and do it anyway.”