Nearly 20 years ago, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held voting rights hearings in Florida, and the outcome was troubling:
The hearings found “widespread voter disenfranchisement,” says Nadine Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Equality Florida and now chair of the Florida Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Those hearings were held after the 2000 presidential recount.
“Now, nearly two decades later, it is time to see how our state is ensuring every vote counts and every voter can vote,” Smith said in a statement released Thursday.
The committee, a citizen volunteer group familiar with local and state civil rights issues, will soon begin a study of voting rights across the state, specifically looking at the rejection of vote-by-mail ballots and how they are treated in different counties.
“The right to vote is fundamental to democracy and every Floridian must have confidence that their access to the ballot is safeguarded,” says Smith.
Vote-by-mail ballots are increasingly being used as a way to vote in Florida elections, and the way that they are counted was the source of controversy after last November’s election, resulting in a number of lawsuits.
The group will be holding a conference call this afternoon to plan for upcoming meetings that will be held throughout the state.
State legislators addressed some of the voting issues in an election reform bill that will soon go to Gov. Ron DeSantis desk.
It moves the deadline for voters to request vote-by-mail ballots from six days before an election to 10 days before. And it prohibits county Supervisors of Elections from mailing out ballots less than eight days before the election instead of the current four days.
The bill also requires the Florida Department of State to provide training to help elections workers and county canvassing boards determine whether the signature on a voter’s ballot matches the one on file at the elections offices.
This issue was the source of conflict in last year’s election, where a voter’s signature can charge significantly over the years, and they may not know their signature on file needs updating.
Those problems were anticipated in a report issued last September by the American Civil Liberties Union and University of Florida professor Dan Smith. That report said that a greater percentage of vote-by-mail ballots cast by young people and people of color are rejected compared to ballots cast in person.
Leaders from civil and voters’ rights groups in Florida testified before members of the Subcommittee on Elections of the U.S. House last week in Fort Lauderdale about the barriers that minority groups face when voting in the state.
As part of their upcoming study, the Florida Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights says they want Florida voters to share their experiences registering to vote and voting in the state. They intend to host a series of community forums, public briefings and web-based meetings to hear additional testimony.
Voters can submit written statements by July 1 to the Regional Programs Unit of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 230 S. Dearborn, Suite 2120, Chicago, IL 60616; via email at [email protected]; or fax 312-353-8324.