Disenfranchisement, By Design

Black voters
Black voters are Obama's most loyal constituents

In November 2000, Wallace McDonald didn’t get a chance to cast his vote for president when he showed up at a Tampa, Fla., precinct. What he got was a visit from the ghost of the state’s Jim Crow past.

Seems the 66-year-old Black man, who had been voting for the past 30 years, was listed as a felon – for a misdemeanor vagrancy arrest that happened in 1959.

Ironically, McDonald’s arrest happened before the1965 Voting Rights Act – an act that was passed to end things like poll taxes, literacy tests and other unfairness that prevented Black people like him from voting.

But sadly, during the George W. Bush and Al Gore election debacle of 2000, that act didn’t help to remove a barrier erected by state election officials. It used a Texas firm to weed out felons from the voting rolls, but scores of people like McDonald were wrongly included on its list.

Which meant that like him, others may have been wrongly denied the right to vote.

Now Florida, a state whose Republican-ruled Legislature is obsessed with denying President Obama a second term, is poised to conjure the ghost of Jim Crow again. Except this time, more Latinos, Democrats and independent-minded voters could find themselves the victims of mistaken identities and outdated information. Just like McDonald did.

A Florida newspaper recently reported that those groups are more likely to be in the crosshairs of a state hunt to remove thousands of non-citizens from the state’s voting rolls, while Whites and Republicans are least likely to face that threat.

The problem, though, is that the state’s Division of Elections is using old data to find these potential non-citizens. It’s using data from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles – where people can register to vote when they get their license.

There is a chance that some non-citizens could mistakenly fill out a voter-registration card. But when they become citizens, no one notifies the state – which leaves a lot of room for error when the elections department compares its rolls with the highway safety department.

Which means that come November, a lot of people in Florida – a key swing state where most polls now show Obama either slightly ahead or tied with his presumptive GOP challenger Mitt Romney – could be wrongly disenfranchised.

Predictably, a spokesman for the Republican-appointed Secretary of State – which oversees the Elections Division – claimed this late-stage review of the rolls is about protecting the integrity of the vote. But it’s not.

It is about protecting White privilege by making it harder for certain voters to put Obama back into the White House.

Of course, non-citizens shouldn’t be voting. But the question any fair-minded person should have about all this is: Why now? Why now, just six months before the election, officials are poring through flawed data that could wind up disenfranchising legitimate voters?

Could it be that more Latinos – even the usually GOP-reliable Cuban-Americans – are registering as Democrats or NPA, which means No Party Affiliation?

Could it be because the Republican Party has turned off scores of Latinos with its anti-immigration rhetoric?

Could it not be a coincidence that Florida is following the lead of Arizona and Colorado – two states with heavily Latino populations, in doing this?

And could it not be a coincidence that, after passing laws to reduce weekend and early voting, after revoking the voting rights of ex-felons and after restricting third-party groups from registering voters – changes that will invariably make it more difficult for people who typically vote Democratic to vote – the GOP would turn its suppression efforts toward Latinos?

It’s by design, folks.

If the state was all that serious about stopping non-citizens from voting, it would have had a more reliable system in place way before now. Instead, it’s relying on some outdated, haphazard process six months before the election.

This is happening because the Republicans who run Florida don’t want a fair or competent voting system. Rather than do the tough work of bringing the people who don’t vote for them to their side, they’d rather find ways to silence them.

We need to be especially wary about this. Or else come November, there could be more Wallace McDonalds. Or more people whose Spanish surname or old license or arrest record could conjure the ghost of Jim Crow past when they show up at the state’s polls.

And prevent them from having a say in the nation’s future.