Groups fear voter suppression efforts could intensify for FL’s general election

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Notwithstanding official praise for Florida’s conduct of primary day voting this week, a coalition of civil rights groups have alleged a pattern of vote suppression in South Florida.

Among the problems they cited, the advocates said voters turned up to polling locations they’d used for years only to find them closed, without adequate notice of a location change, or locations that closed before the legal closing time of 7 p.m.

“What we witnessed on primary election day this past Tuesday was at best gross negligence by the supervisors of elections offices and at worst a concerted voter suppression effort,” said Corryn Freeman, executive director of the Florida for All Education Fund, which she described as a coalition of progressive groups.

“If the primary was like this, I can only imagine that it’s going to intensify for the general election,´ said Rhonda Thomas, executive director of Faith in Florida, an interdenominational civil rights organization.

This, after Secretary of State Laurel Lee pronounced voting day a success late Tuesday, as reported by news organizations including Florida Politics, amid expanded use of early and mail-in voting because of COVID-19.

The biggest disruption of the day came when a poll worker in Naples told a Democratic voter that the primary was for Republicans only. The voter was able to cast a ballot anyway and the worker was fired, as Fox News reported.

During a Zoom call, the advocates mostly focused on what they saw as problems in Broward County, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has appointed former statewide prosecutor Peter Antonacci to replace Brenda Snipes as elections supervisor after she resigned under pressure following problems with the 2018 elections in the county. He has held appointed positions under Democratic and Republican governors.

Steve Vancore, spokesman for Antonacci, acknowledged in a telephone interview that polling locations changed at short notice but attributed that to landlords cancelling leases at short notice for fear of COVID-19.

Officials tried to notify voters by email and posted poll workers and signs at the affected spots to redirect voters during voting hours, he said. “We had people at every single location,” Vancore said.

“Is that voter suppression? I don’t think so,” he said.

Carolyn Thompson of the Advancement Project, another civil rights group, said it monitored four traditional polling locations— Tamarac Library, the African American Research Library, Lauderhill Mall, and Miramar Branch Library, all in Broward County — where voters showed up only to find the polling places had been moved.

Other voters searched in vain for ballot drop boxes, she added.

The organization’s poll watchers did their best to redirect voters but Thompson argued the elections office should have done more. She demanded expanded early voting days and “cure” days when voters can verify provisional ballots.

She contrasted the “dignity and resilience” of people of color attempting to vote with the “indignity” of elections officials.

Other speakers spoke of a lack of accommodations for working mothers with children in tow, senior citizens, and disabled people who had trouble accessing polling places, and of poll workers directing voters to different polling places that actually had been closed and refusing to help.

“The people who were most affected were communities of color. These are all black folks who were experiencing this. These were working class folks taking time out of their day to do their civic duty and to make sure that they are heard,” said Ruth Moreno of the Florida For All Education Fund.

“And the poll workers were essentially not being responsive to that — not doing everything in their power to make sure that their experience counted, that their voice counted,” she said.

“It’s just unbelievable that we’re in 2020 and still experiencing a Selma, where we’re fighting not just to register to vote but to be able to vote, have a good voting experience, and then your vote be actually counted,” Thomas said.

“There are still many failures built into the system, where we do not have supervisors of elections who wake up every day and go to work with the mind that they will make sure every eligible voter can cast a ballot,” said Sheena Rolle, also of Faith in Florida. “We experience it every day, every election, and it is time for it to end,” she said.

Still, Vancore insisted the office is operating much more smoothly now than in the past.

“I think it’s fair to say that where we were two years ago and where we are today is night and day. We set a record for turnout. We set a record for vote by mail. We set a record for getting our vote up and accurate,” he said.

During the general election, the county plans to open 22 early voting places for two weeks in advance of voting day where people can drop off mail-in ballots plus drop boxes two cites, one at the Lauderhill Mall and one at the office’s headquarters downtown, he said.

Additionally, the office sends workers to the big U.S. Postal Service distribution center in Opa-Locka to retrieve mail-in ballot that arrive late during the last days of the election, Vancore said.

Vancore urged the Phoenix to pass along a message to voters: Remember to sign their ballot envelopes, “because the ones that don’t get counted are almost only not signed,” and “do not give your ballot to a stranger” to avoid ballot-harvesting scams.