Voting law represents ‘tactic used to suppress votes in the Black community’

Community organizer takes stand in lawsuit challenging SB 90

By: - February 1, 2022 11:00 am

Photo by Hill Street Studios/Getty Images.

During Day Two of a trial testing the constitutionality of Florida’s restrictions on voting, a community organizer from Central Florida testified that her group has had to stop registering voters and mobilizing church communities to head to the polls.

Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder and consulting director for the Equal Ground Education Fund, complained that the law, pushed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and enacted by the GOP-dominated Legislature last year, has changed “how voters fundamentally vote.”

“This is a tactic used to suppress votes in the Black community. Every time there is an attempt for us to increase our capacity as an organization or support black voters, it seems like the goal posts again changes the direction for Black voters,” she testified.

“They are not unfamiliar with the harm that this causes. We are not unfamiliar with it. And it adversely affects the way that we exist as an organization.”

A coalition of voting-rights groups is bringing the case against Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who enforces election law. The state and national Republican parties have joined the case to defend the law.

The day opened with a tongue lashing from U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, presiding in Tallahassee, who complained that the attorneys were unduly concerned with procedural minutiae at the expense of efficiently presenting their cases.

“The lawyers in this case should be embarrassed by their performance,” Walker said.

“I understand all y’all are interested in is gamesmanship, don’t care about the rule of law, don’t care about deciding any issue … on the merits,” the judge said.

“Everybody wants to play games. Everybody wants to talk about irrelevant stuff. Everybody wants to play hide the ball. Y’all should all be embarrassed.”

Burney-Clark described Equal Ground as a relatively young organization trying to mobilize the Black vote in pursuit of equal justice, climate change, and other progressive goals.

Her organization has ended key operations since the law took effect, she said, including registering voters; ‘souls to the polls” efforts, meaning organizing voting by church congregations; and “line warming,” meaning supporting people standing in line to vote.

The law’s backers have argued that these restrictions are necessary to prevent voting fraud, even though even DeSantis has acknowledged that the 2020 elections ran smoothly in Florida, but they tend to support the overall message pitched by former President Trump and other Republicans that elections in the United States are susceptible to fraud — including the Big Lie that Trump was robbed that year.

In real life, Burney-Clark, said, the cost of meeting the new registration requirements, including delivering forms to the registrants’ home counties, is debilitating voter registration and mobilization efforts.

For example, the legal requirement that organizations deliver signed registration forms to the potential voters’ home counties has rendered her group’s efforts “almost cost-prohibitive,” given that people flock to Central Florida’s tourist attractions from all over the state, Burney-Clark said.

As for church organizing, the organization formerly could bring drop boxes to churches or congregations to county-run drop box sites; she estimated the effort reached 60,000 people in 2020. That can’t happen now because electioneering is restricted within 150 feet of a voting site, Burney-Clark said.

That meant no souls to the polls during last year’s municipal elections, she said.

Burney-Clark testified that, as a consequence, the organization has diverted resources into voter-education; she expects spending there to double, to $2 million this year, presuming the resources are available. The outlook is ‘quite bleak and unpredictable,” she said.

Meanwhile, the group has had to add a political director position and a project manager to strategize compliance with the law — again, diverting resources from voting efforts and training future leaders in community mobilization, she said.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.