Voter Suppression Laws Are Beginning to Raise Eyebrows in Congress

By Rafael Collazo, Campaign Political Director, NCLR

The rise of voter suppression laws in the United States is a deep concern for the Latino community. We are gearing up for the 2012 election cycle, but laws such as Florida’s HB 1355 have seriously hampered voter engagement efforts. Such a law will most certainly present a challenge to NCLR as we begin our work in earnest this coming January.

Voter suppression has also grabbed the attention of some members of Congress. Today, the senior Senator from Florida, Bill Nelson (D), asked Attorney General Eric Holder to open an investigation into these new laws. In a press advisory, Nelson’s office indicated that they are asking the Justice Department to find out if the voter suppression law in Florida and the more than a dozen other states with similar laws are “the result of a coordinated effort to suppress voter turnout among millions of seniors, young people and minorities in next year’s presidential election.”

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Mr. Holder’s justice department is already investigating Florida’s law in certain counties that were found to be out of compliance with the Voting Rights Act. Sen. Nelson’s request, however, would broaden the scope of that investigation to include more than a dozen other states that have implemented similar laws.

We are especially concerned about how such laws will affect the Latino voting population in Florida and the several other states that have decided voter suppression is a priority. In Florida alone, there are 1.6 million Latinos currently registered to vote—that’s more than 13 percent of the state’s entire registered voter population. In 2008, Latinos made up almost 12 percent of all of those who voted in Florida. And, next year (and each year for the next 20 after it), 500,000 Latinos will become eligible to vote in the entire United States. We think this is encouraging news for our community, but the reality is that there are some elected officials who see these numbers as a threat. They will do anything they can to preserve their power, even if that means disenfranchising an entire community.

The situation has become so critical in Florida that the non-partisan League of Women Voters, concerned about violating the misguided law, recently announced that after 72 years they would not be running their regular voter registration drive.

The implications of HB 1355—and its counterparts in others states—are plain to see and must not be tolerated. We’re glad Sen. Nelson recognizes this law for what it is: thinly veiled disenfranchisement of minority populations. Hopefully the Justice Department thinks it’s important enough to investigate, too.

You can read the full text of Sen. Nelson’s letter to Attorney General Holder below.

November 3, 2011 

Dear Attorney General Holder:

I have just written a letter to U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois who chairs the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. I have asked Sen. Durbin’s subcommittee to conduct a congressional investigation to see if Florida’s new election law is linked to the efforts to pass similar voting restrictions in 14 states so far this year.

The changes mostly involve new ID requirements, shorter early voting periods and new restrictions on third parties who sign up new voters. In Florida, the League of Women Voters considered these restrictions so egregious it abandoned its registration drives after 72 years, and teachers there are running afoul of the law for the way they sign up students to vote.

According to the first comprehensive study of the laws’ impact, just completed by The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, these voting changes could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters in numerous states to cast their ballots in 2012. Both The Washington Post and New York Times have reported such measures could keep young people and minorities away from the polls.

If the Brennan Center is correct in its assessment that five million voters could be disenfranchised, that would be more than the all the registered voters in any of 42 states in this country.

In short, indications are mounting of an effort to suppress the national vote. In Florida, the Justice Department continues reviewing how the voting law changes would affect certain voters, particularly minorities, pursuant to the Voting Rights Act. I believe more should be done.

The Justice Department should investigate whether new state voting laws resulted from collusion or an orchestrated effort to limit voter turnout. The Department needs to determine whether or not there was broad-based motivation to suppress the vote—and, if so, whether any laws were violated.

I look forward to your prompt response on this most serious of issues.


Bill Nelson

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