Florida minority rights groups are joining a national campaign calling for a federal constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote. The move comes in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Supreme Court struck down the part of the Voting Rights Act requiring the federal Justice Department to preapprove voting laws in several, mostly southern, counties and states, including five counties in Florida. That didn’t sit well with minority rights activists.
North Carolina NAACP President William J. Barber said, “It’s a direct attack on the black vote.”
Judith Brown Dianis, who directs the Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group The Advancement Project, said, “It’s clear that these policies are aimed at making it harder to vote for people of color.”
And “In Florida, discrimination doesn’t live in the past,” said, Gihan Perera, executive director of the group Florida New Majority. Perera said, the Voting Rights Act, including the section the court invalidated, gave groups like his the leverage to be able to challenge Florida’s controversial new voting laws in the run-up to the 2012 election.
“The five counties covered by Section 5 were the only counties in the state where groups like ours could still register voters, uninhibited, by the onerous limitations placed on voting rights by House Bill 1355,” he said.
The Florida law outlawed third-party groups from registering voters and reduced the number of early-voting days, including shutting polls the Sunday before the election. Advocates say all of that suppresses minority turnout. After legal battles last year, third-party groups were allowed to continue voter registration drives, and the Legislature restored early-voting days.
But, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled it’s unconstitutional to review only some regions, saying the standard should be the same for all states. Writing for the court majority, Chief Justice John Roberts says federal pre-clearance for voting laws has lost its relevance, nearly 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed.
Chris Cate, a spokesman for Florida’s State Department, the ruling will make things easier.
“It’s going to be positive for Florida because all counties are going to be treated equally. So, instead of five counties needing to go through this extra process, laws will be able to be implemented on the date that the bill that was signed into law goes into effect,” he said.
But Florida A&M University law professor Patricia Broussard said, the federal law hasn’t lost its relevance in Florida. Broussard had filed a brief in the case, urging the Supreme Court to uphold all sections of the Voting Rights Act. But she says the ruling may be a catalyst for change.
“You cannot spread democracy, you cannot argue that our way is the right way to do it when you suppress the very right that makes this country great,” she said. “So I think that you will see a group coalesce that will transcend race, class and all kind of status to say, ‘We’ve got to get this right.’”
And coalesce they have. The Florida New Majority and Florida NAACP have joined a national campaign called Free to Vote. They’re collecting petition signatures urging Congress to pass a federal constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote. To become law, amendments need approval from two-thirds of Congress and ratification by 38 states.