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North Florida Voting Rights Advocates Call For More Federal Oversight

Valere Crowder
State and local leaders call for passage of the federal John Lewis Voting Rights Act outside Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in downtown Tallahassee on Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021.

Florida voting rights advocates are calling for the federal government to undo some of the recent elections laws that have passed in Republican-controlled state legislatures.

“Let’s contact our Senators and tell them: They must pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act,” Leon County Commissioner Carolyn Cummings shouted from the steps of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in downtown Tallahassee during a rally on Saturday. “And if not, let’s show them that we have the power of the vote as well.”

The U.S. Senate is expected to take up the voting rights bill in September. Proponents say the measure would challenge state elections' laws that place unfair restrictions on voting. Democrats in the House passed the measure in August. And President Joe Biden has promised to sign it if it lands on his desk.

On Saturday, about 50 people gathered in front of Bethel church, which was formed roughly 150 years ago and was a driving force during the Civil Rights movement. Over the weekend, state and local elected officials stood alongside community leaders and voting rights activists calling for an end to laws that restrict the use of ballot boxes and place additional burdens on absentee voters.

“That’s contrary to the spirit of democracy,” Cummings said. “We have fundamental rights, one of those rights is the right to vote.”

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a provision in the federal 1965 Voting Rights Act that required states, counties, and towns with a history of discrimination to get clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice before changing elections laws.

Five Florida counties and the entire state of Georgia were covered under that provision. Proponents say the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would restore that “pre-clearance” authority to the federal government — providing a check on GOP state legislative efforts to safeguard elections.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees states the right to govern their elections, but federal law has helped ensure those laws aren’t discriminatory.

The rally at Bethel church in Tallahassee was held on the 58th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington.

Valerie Crowder
Tallahassee resident Stanley Sims, 55, is among more than a million Floridians with non-violent felony records who were re-enfranchised after the passage of Amendment 4 in 2018.

“I’m here today as to use the same words that the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said when he went to Washington D.C.,” explained 55-year-old Tallahassee resident Stanley Sims. “All we want is for America to be true to what they put on paper. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. And if we’re created equal, we should have equal access to the right to vote.”

Sims is among more than a million Floridians who got the right to vote after Amendment 4 passed in 2018. For him, the federal legislation offers hope for overturning the fines and fees requirement that the state legislature adopted.

Until the John Lewis Voting Rights Act passes, advocates are working on another way to increase voter participation: registering new voters. The Big Bend Voting Rights Project was formed in response to the passage of Amendment 4.

“We have we’ve done a lot of registrations in Gadsden County and Jackson County also Bay County,” said Bob Rackleff, the project’s founder. “The smaller counties are harder because our basic strategy is to go door-to-door in neighborhoods that have a high potential for new voter registrations. And obviously, in rural areas, people are pretty spread out.”

Valerie Crowder
Bob Rackleff, founder of the Big Bend Voting Rights Project, has worked to register more than a thousand new voters in the region since the 2020 election season.

Rackleff says his group has successfully registered rural voters in Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf, and Liberty Counties. They also registered 165 people in Southwest Georgia leading up to the state’s Senate runoff elections, he said. This fall, they’ll work with local volunteers to register people who’ve never voted before.

“The easy work has been done,” Rackleff said. “The hard work is finding people who’ve never registered for whatever reason. Some of them are ex-felons who completed their sentence decades ago and still don’t understand they have the right to vote and so we go out and find them and sign them up.”

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.