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It Takes a Village to Raise a Battle Cry

While the attack on voting rights is being coordinated from the highest levels of state government, the defense of these rights is building from the ground up, starting in Pinecrest, Florida.

  • Ethan Smith
April 10, 2012

In the battle to defend voting rights, it is easy to demonize Florida. First there was Bush v. Gore, which 12 years later still evokes images of voter intimidation, politicized elections officials, bungled recounts, and those notorious hanging chads. Last year, Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature doubled down on this troubled history by passing a draconian new election law that has already sharply reduced voter registration activity. Ostensibly aimed at combating nonexistent voter fraud, the new law will make it harder for tens of thousands of Floridians to vote.

But despite these rollbacks, there are signs of hope in the Sunshine State, starting in the Village of Pinecrest.

Last month, this leafy suburb of Miami took a bold stand for voting rights, passing a resolution “calling for a repeal of restrictive voting laws.” The resolution casts Florida’s law as part of “concerted campaign to prevent millions of Americans from casting ballots” that “unfairly targets the poor, young and minorities.” The U.S. Department of Justice, along with the Brennan Center and several allied organizations, has opposed the law in court.

Meanwhile, 270 miles north up the Atlantic coast, election officials in Volusia County are crying foul as well. There, local Supervisor of Elections Ann McFall blames her county’s 20 percent drop in new voter registrations directly on the law. As she told the New York Times, the law’s onerous new requirements and stiff penalties for violations have led registration organizations — specifically the League of Women Voters and Volusia County’s five universities — to sharply curtail or completely cease their registration efforts.

And to the west, near Tallahassee, Leon County’s election supervisor, Ion Sancho — a lion in the world of election reform — has stepped into the legal fray, joining the Justice Department and the Brennan Center in contesting the law under the Voting Rights Act. Sancho’s opposition to the law is born of expertise and experience. In 2000, he was appointed to oversee the Florida recounts — and would have, had the Supreme Court allowed them to continue. More recently, he drew attention to the vulnerabilities of computerized voting equipment by hacking his own voting machines, in the process becoming the subject of the HBO documentary “Hacking Democracy.” Now he’s adding his voice to the populist outcry against Florida’s new election law.

Though Florida’s all-out assault on voting rights is drawing critics out of the woodwork, it is not the only state where brave local officials are standing up for the franchise.

After Wisconsin passed a strict voter ID law last year, Milwaukee County began providing free birth certificates to residents to defray the burden of registration and voting. Now a Dane County judge has enjoined the law as unconstitutional. Even though the law is currently not in effect, County Supervisor Nikiya Harris says Milwaukee will continue to provide birth certificates as the law winds its way though the appeals process.

While the attack on voting rights is being coordinated from the highest levels of state government, the defense of these rights is building from the ground up. As ordinary voters fall victim to these draconian laws, brave local officials — like those in Florida and Wisconsin — are bearing witness and fighting back.