Florida activists say black voters have seen their political power diminished – NPR

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A voter leaves after voting in a special congressional election on January 11 in Miramar, Florida. Rebecca Blackwell/AP hide caption

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Rebecca Blackwell/AP

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A voter leaves after voting in a special congressional election on January 11 in Miramar, Florida.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A combination of new election laws and congressional redistricting has made it harder for Florida’s black communities to organize and vote, activists say.

Florida, which concludes primary elections on Tuesday, is among several Republican-led states that have passed laws leading up to the 2020 election that impose new restrictions on voters as well as third-party groups that play a role in registering minorities. racial in Florida.

Ben Frazier and his small civil rights organization, the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, recently spent an afternoon in town helping a group of older black voters update their voter registration.

That way, Frazier said, there are no problems when they go to vote.

“We don’t want your voter registration form thrown away for any reason,” he said. “They’re doing a lot of different things to suppress the black vote in this city and in this state.”

Last year, Republican lawmakers in Florida passed Senate Bill 90, a broad law that requires people to apply to vote by mail more often. It also set new limits on dropdown boxes. And this year, lawmakers approved Senate Bill 524which creates new and tougher penalties for voter registration organizations for things like turning in forms late.

And most importantly, Frazier said, this latest law created a new police unit focused on voting crimes.

“I think it all has a chilling effect. People are afraid of the police,” he said. “We know this is one of many attempts to suppress the black vote.”

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference Thursday in Fort Lauderdale, where he announced that the state’s new Office of Crime and Election Security is in the process of arresting 20 people statewide for fraud electoral Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

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On Thursday, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that this new police unit will charge 20 people with illegal voting in 2020. He said those people had felony convictions that prevent them from regaining their voting rights. At the time, however, several details, including some of the defendants, were not made public he told the Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald that they were not told they could not vote. Their races were also not revealed.

DeSantis said at a news conference that the charges and the investigation by the new agency mark the beginning of the state getting serious about combating alleged voter fraud.

“We proposed it before [unit] There were just examples of these things that seemed to fall through the cracks,” he said. “So this is just the opening salvo, this is not the total for 2020.” Experts have found that election fraud is extremely rare

Black activists say the 2020 election backlash by state Republican leaders is part of a larger effort to diminish black voting power.

Earlier this year, a federal judge governed that SB 90, in particular, is part of the state’s long and “grotesque” history of racial discrimination. Shortly after the ruling, an appeals court ordered that the law remain in place while legal challenges make their way through the courts. The Department of Justice in recent days agreed that the law is intentionally discriminatory.

Driving change in Duval County

Reginald Gundy, the pastor of Missionary Baptist Church Mt. Sinai in Jacksonville, says all of these new rules in Florida are deeply personal.

Gundy has spent much of his time registering voters in communities of color, mostly black voters, in North Florida. As of 2018, Gundy estimates he has registered more than 80,000 people in Duval County alone, which is the county that includes Jacksonville.

Gundy also works to get out the vote, making sure the people his group registers actually go to the polls during elections.

“If they don’t go to the polls, we’d be like, ‘Hey, look you’re registered to vote, you haven’t voted, you’ve got to go vote,'” he said. “We can’t tell people who to vote for, but we’ve been very good at that. So as a result of that, it has brought about a change in Duval County.”

In 2020, Joe Biden won Duval County. It was the first time in decades that a Democratic presidential candidate had won.

Gundy says this change isn’t something that went unnoticed by Republican leaders in Florida. In fact, he believes that’s why DeSantis recently redrew the state’s congressional lines in a way that cut the number of opportunity districts for black voters in half.

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Before redistricting, the state had four seats where black voters had enough votes to elect the candidate of their choice. Now the state has only two such seats. One of those lost seats included Jacksonville’s black communities.

“The way they’ve redrawn, redrawing the district in Duval County, has taken away the right of black people to vote and have a representative in Congress,” Gundy said. “We’re going to have a leader in Congress without adequate representation for who we are.”

Gundy says black voting and organizing power is the weakest it’s been in decades.

“It’s sad and we have to figure out how to fix it,” he said.

In a statement, DeSantis’ office said his redistricting decision had nothing to do with politics. A spokesman said the governor’s priority was “to ensure that congressional maps are constitutional and will withstand anticipated legal challenges.”

The argument DeSantis made to the state legislature when he vetoed his maps and introduced his own is that he thought the majority-minority district that included Jacksonville is unconstitutional. In a letter to lawmakers, he said the district was not compact and “did not conform to regular political or geographic boundaries.” He argued that the district was written to favor one race over another, which DeSantis said violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Michael Sampson II, with the Jacksonville Community Action Committee, says he doesn’t think DeSantis, who is thought to be considering a presidential run, made a political calculation here.

“It’s a clear choice to dilute black voting power, black political power in D.C., especially when the governor is planning his run for president,” he said.

Sampson adds that what is happening in Florida amounts to a “white attack” that reacts to a summer of civil rights protest after the murder of George Floyd.

Christina Kittle with Florida For All agrees.

“There’s just been a clear attack on organizers and protesters within the black community, especially since 2020,” he said. “When there are clear attacks like this it does make it difficult for us to move. But I don’t think … it hasn’t stopped us. We’re still out there doing the job. I see other people are too. It’s harder.”

Meanwhile, the state has a big election on the horizon this fall. DeSantis is running for re-election. And Rep. Val Demings is running to unseat Sen. Marco Rubio. If he wins the battle, Demings would be the state’s first black U.S. senator.

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