Forum educates voters on latest suppression laws

Published: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 2:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 2:44 p.m.

A group of nearly 30 Gainesville residents learned about voter suppression laws from a University of Florida political science professor who is an expert on the subject.

Dr. Daniel Smith, a UF political science professor, led a two-hour voter education forum at the Santa Fe College Center for Innovation and Economic Development in downtown Gainesville that was sponsored by The Visionaires, a Gainesville civic organization of black women.

Smith conducted the forum as if he was lecturing, using a PowerPoint presentation and taking time to ask questions and get feedback from those in attendance.

He began by talking about how some state legislatures, including in Florida, passed laws making it harder for people to vote after the 2008 election of President Barack Obama.

“The U.S. Justice Department, as well as the ACLU, NAACP and other groups who were challenging these laws showed considerable evidence that these laws were going to have a discriminatory affect, mostly on ethnic minorities and the elderly,” Smith said.

Smith said one of the most crucial laws passed in some states were laws regulating the ID needed to cast votes at the polls. He said Florida has one of the more lenient voter ID laws because voters don’t have to use only state-issued identification and can use such IDs as retirement community ID cards or college student ID cards.

However, he said the Florida Legislature did pass laws that limited third-party voter registration groups, provincial ballots (used to record a vote when there is some question in regard to a given voter’s eligibility) and early voting. He said those issues were a part of Florida House Bill 1355 that was passed in May 2011 with all but two Republican senators voting for it and all Democratic Legislators voting against it.

Smith said one of the most controversial issues in the law was the new rules governing third-party voter registration drives. He said his research showed that restrictions on the way third-party organizations register voters can have tangible effects on actual registrations and can have an impact on elections.

Smith covered a host of topics, including the disenfranchisement of felons who have to petition to get their right to vote back after doing their time and the flaws with casting absentee ballots.

He said only two states — Maine and Vermont — allow prisoners to vote. He also said the Florida law prohibiting felons from voting was passed in 1868 shortly after the U.S. Congress passed the 14th Amendment that gave black men the right to vote.

He also said some counties disproportionately discard absentee ballots cast by black voters by saying the signature on the absentee ballot does not match the signature the elections office has on file. He said the only recourse voters have is to update their signature at the elections office so they won’t have the same problem if they choose to continue using absentee ballots.

Gussie Campbell, president of The Visionaires, said the forum was very informative and beneficial to those who attended.

“It was really important for us to get the information, particularly on absentee voting because we did not know about some of the issues he talked about, but we had heard some absentee ballots did not get counted,” Campbell said. “We need to educate our voters and tell them that even though they are submitting absentee ballots, they are probably not getting counted.”

Charles S. Chestnut III, owner of Chestnut Funeral Home and a longtime civil rights activist in Gainesville, said the information Smith shared at the forum had a profound impact on him.

“The major thing I take away from this is number one, we as an African-American community need to become a little bit more active in the voting process and get out here and do some work in terms of checking our signatures and stressing to people to take their time when they are signing their names on the absentee ballots,” Chestnut said.

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