by Linda Geller-Schwartz, Palm Beach Section VP of Public Affairs
Florida, the land of palm trees, beautiful beaches, Mickey Mouse – and hanging chads. Anywhere in the US, or even in the world, the mention of Florida can elicit a comment about election fiascos: 102-year old women queuing in the heat for hours to vote, contested re-counts, and campaign shenanigans. If a fair election where every citizen can vote is fundamental to a democracy, Florida’s system has seemed very far from that ideal.
NCJW has always stood for fair elections – a nonpartisan issue in Washington and around the country. A longstanding principle of our organization states that all citizens of voting age have the right to vote, and the opportunity to exercise that right, without facing barriers.
After the problems of the 2012 election, NCJW Palm Beach joined a coalition of non-partisan county groups to advocate for electoral change. NCJW co-chairs this Voting Rights Coalition (VRC) with the League of Women Voters. Other partners include Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.
We held educational presentations, wrote letters to the editor, and contacted key state legislators as an electoral reform bill moved through the legislature last session. Thankfully, the bill, signed into law in May 2013, addressed many of the reforms we wanted, including more early voting days and sites. While the legislation was not perfect, community activists, including the VRC, regarded it as a significant victory.
But the battle for a just electoral system is far from over. Citizens may still have to wait years to exercise their right to vote, or may find themselves threatened with the loss of that right, through human or computer error. How is that possible? How is that acceptable?
One reason is that Florida has disfranchised more than 1.5 million citizens if they have had a felony conviction. That astonishing number amounts to over 10% of the state’s voting age population and almost 1 out of 4 African-Americans of voting age in the state. For an ex-felon to get his or her right to vote restored, requires a discretionary decision by a Clemency Board, headed by the Governor. But, in the past couple of years, only 420 people have had their rights restored through this process! In effect, being convicted of a felony in Florida amounts to permanent disfranchisement for these citizens.
Now, Florida is facing a new “voter purge” that many think may produce the same situation as in 2012. After legal suits, and much pain and cost to the state, the initial 182,000 suspected ineligible voters were winnowed down to fewer than 200. Meanwhile, many citizens, including a 91 year old World War II veteran, were intimidated by having their right to vote challenged.
NCJW, along with our partners in the VRC, will focus on both these injustices. We have spoken before the County Legislative Delegation and met with our Supervisor of Elections. We are training our coalition members in effective advocacy and gearing up to make sure these issues are on the public agenda. In the spirit of “protecting the vote, promoting the vote”, NCJW (Palm Beach) is making this a priority.