Update @3:50pm pm ET: An independent analysis of the list of names challenged by Tampa Vote Fair’s Kimberly Kelley reveals the list is 40 percent black, which compares to 15 percent of registered voters who are black. Political scientists Daniel Smith of University of Florida and Michael Herron of Dartmouth College identified 73 people on the list using voter ID numbers in the Florida voter file. They also found just 16 percent of the voters on the list were registered as Republicans, compared to 33 percent of county voters. “We’re essentially seeing the privitzation of voter suppression,” says Smith, “and that should be highly disconcerting. Now we have private citizens through this organization Tampa Vote Fair doing their own data mining and matching and challenging potential citizens at the polls.”
Tea party activists in Florida’s largely black and electorally significant Interstate 4 corridor have worked furiously to put a damper on what has been a record-setting turnout thus far. In one of the most striking examples of voter suppression to emerge, Voting Rights Watch obtained a list of several dozen Hillsborough County voters who will be surprised to learn they cannot vote regular ballots thanks to last-minute challenges filed against them.
I’ve requested similar information from Miami-Dade, Orange, Pinellas and Seminole counties, but officials have not responded. A spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s Office, Chris Cate, said the state does not track voter challenges, so there is no way of knowing how widespread these sorts of challenges may be.
In Hillsborough County, 77 people—40 of them in Tampa—won’t be able to file a regular ballot because the True the Vote-affiliated group Tampa Vote Fair has challenged their voting status. Of those, 68 have been challenged because Tampa Vote Fair asserts they are ineligible due to a felony conviction. These people will not know that their vote has been challenged until they reach the polls and are forced to cast a provisional ballot. (Some of them may have already attempted to vote during the early voting period.)
According to documents provided to Voting Rights Watch by Hillsborough County Attorney’s office, all 77 of the voter challenges were filed by Kimberly Kelley, Tampa Vote Fair’s president, and all are dated Oct. 16, 2012—a full week after voter registration ended in Florida. Earlier this year, Kelley sent to the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections multiple lists of people she suspected were ineligible to vote due to felony convictions. One of those lists had 1,375 names on it, which the county supervisor forwarded on to the state to investigate, but which turned up no names yet of people improperly registered.
Kelley’s new list is significant in that it is an official under-oath declaration from Tampa Vote Fair that these people should not be allowed to vote. Kelley is putting herself at risk by filing the challenges. If any of the challenges are determined to be frivolous, then Kelley could be charged with a first degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison, for each bogus challenge. The attorney general will make the determination of whether the challenges are frivolous or in good faith, but this is unchartered territory—perhaps the most extreme steps a True the Vote-affiliated group has taken to strip voters of election rights. Hillsborough County managing attorney Mary Helen Farris told me she is not aware of any voter challenges filed in 2008 or 2010.
All of Kelley’s challenges were made by matching state voter registration names and dates of birth with information from the state’s Department of Corrections database. In nine cases, she challenged voters based off them having the wrong addresses, while in the other 68 she accuses of them of being “an adjudicated guilty felon.”
Florida’s laws around felony disenfranchisement and for challenging voters both have roots in a time and space when the state’s lawmakers were purposely trying to suppress black voters. The Brennan Center for Justice’s report Voter Challengers says:
Many states originally enacted challenger laws to block minority voters’ access to the polls. Virginia, for instance, passed its first challenger law in the immediate wake of Reconstruction alongside a host of other suppressive measures, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, aimed at recently freed former slaves. Other states—like Florida, Ohio, and Minnesota—similarly passed challenger legislation during the nineteenth century to suppress turnout in black communities.
The Brennan Center recommends that challengers bear the burden of proving a voter is ineligible through documented evidence before a legal challenge can be placed, while giving the presumption of eligibility—the presumption of innocence—to a voter. Brennan also recommends that voters should be shielded from frivolous challenges and given ample time to respond to a challenge before Election Day, as opposed to showing up at the polls and finding out that they can’t file a regular ballot.
The Controversy Over Bottled Water
Kelley’s challenges aren’t the only ones Tampa voters needed to worry about during the early voting period. Last Friday and Saturday, the last two official days of early voting, black voters and NAACP members were upset when Republican poll watchers challenged NAACP members for passing out water and offering chairs to voters standing in long lines in the hot sun.
Black voters have been turning out in record numbers not only in Tampa, but throughout the state. There are reports of people standing in line up to seven hours, many of them elderly and disabled—and at one Orlando site there was a bomb scare.
So NAACP members have been passing out water to help people deal with the heat. A Republican poll watcher reported this activity at the C. Blythe Andrews Jr. polling site in Tampa, a predominantly African American district, and had the poll clerk stop the water distribution. According to NAACP political action chair Yvette Lewis, the Republican poll watcher accused the teams of bribing voters with the water, much like a challenge filed by a Republican poll watcher Sunday when helpers passed out fried fish.
Lewis said the water ban was made possible by a poll watcher assigned by the Democratic Party (all poll watchers are assigned by the political parties) who capitulated to the Republican poll watcher’s demands, in an effort to “pick and choose their battles.”
True the Vote-affiliated poll watchers filed similar challenges against the NAACP for passing out water in Houston. Right-wing blogger Matthew Vadum, who once wrote that it should be criminal to register low-income people to vote, wrote about the Houston NAACP Water-Gate caper saying:
Poll watcher Eve Rockford said members of the left-wing so-called civil rights group appeared at the early polling place wearing NAACP-labeled clothing and 50 cases of bottled water. The activists handed out the water bottles to individuals standing in line waiting to vote. They were also “stirring the crowd” and “talking to voters about flying to Ohio to promote President Barack Obama,” said Rockford, who was trained in poll-watching by True the Vote, a prominent electoral integrity organization.
Lewis said the Republican poll watcher stood outside the polling place, “Grinning like, ‘Ha, I control you all, I shut you all down,’ because that’s what it felt like. We had all these people out here to help voters and this one man shut it down.”
But it didn’t seem to stop the flow of voter traffic. Black voter turnout at predominantly black districts hovered around 45 percent, which Lewis said was “very good” compared to 2008. But it also means that there’s roughly half of remaining black eligible voters who have one more day to vote, tomorrow, which means lines could be even longer.
The early voting number totals are impressive—166,937 in total throughout Hillsborough County, the anchor of the important Interstate 4 corridor that includes Tampa, Orlando and Daytona Beach. In 2008, the total early voting numbers in Hillsborough County totalled 146,563—and that was with four more days of early voting than this year.