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SPLC testimony before U.S. House Subcommittee about the state of voting rights in Florida

SPLC senior voting rights staff attorney Matletha Bennette testified on May 25, 2022, before the U.S House Subcommittee on Elections about the state of voting rights in Florida, as part of their field hearing in Tallahassee.

In addition, Bennette delivered written testimony, which can be found here and here.

Good morning, Chairman Butterfield, Ranking member Steil, and members of the Committee on House Administration — Subcommittee on Elections. I am Matletha Bennette, a Senior Staff Attorney in the Voting Rights Practice Group at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and SPLC Action Fund.

Florida has a long history of denying voting rights to its citizens. Despite gains made over the past several decades, we face a renewed commitment to return to the old, shameful days of poll taxes, literacy tests, identification cards, and citizenship tests. These modern-day voter suppression efforts are often rhetorically clothed in “election integrity” legislation. As a result, opponents of voting reform, emboldened by lies of fraud, have been successful in inciting violence, intimidating voters, and subverting the will of the people.

To help the subcommittee understand the historical context for these efforts, our written testimony describes:

  • How Florida used tools, such as grandfather clauses and literacy tests, to circumvent the constitutionally protected class of “race” under the Fifteenth Amendment;
  • How Floridians resorted to violence to silence the Black electorate, culminating in the 1920 Ocoee Election Day Massacre;
  • How, in 2013, the Supreme Court stripped away Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and
  • How there is a need for federal action to stop the wave of discriminatory voting laws flooding the South.

In 2018, sixty-five percent of Floridians voted “Yes” to Amendment 4, restoring rights to 1.4 million individuals with criminal records and promulgating the largest expansion of the right to vote since the Voting Rights Act. In response, Florida officials enacted so-called “implementing legislation” that gutted the spirit of Amendment 4 by conditioning the right to vote on the ability to pay a fee.

This unconstitutional poll tax discriminates against people based on their wealth and continues to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Floridians, who are struggling to obtain decent jobs or housing and finding it impossible to navigate Florida’s decentralized system of records.

Over the last few years, suppressive voting measures in Florida have created unnecessary barriers and burdens that disproportionately and unconstitutionally impact Black and LatinX voters, women voters, the elderly, and voters with disabilities.

Rapidly changing election laws have planted confusion in the minds of voters about new rules and inspired fear in local election officials who want to avoid penalties. As weapons of harassment and intimidation, these excessive restrictions perpetuate distrust and decrease voter turnout.

The Office of Election Crimes and Security established this past legislative session is unnecessary and duplicative. Without guardrails, it is an unwieldy tool for targeting voter registration groups and local election officials, a terrifying reminder of this country’s history of using law enforcement to kill, threaten, and prevent people from voting.

Florida has ramped up arrests of formerly incarcerated citizens, now being charged with committing voter fraud, some of whom mistakenly thought they could vote in the wake of confusing guidance following the passage of Amendment 4.

Political bodies across the country seek to drown out the minority vote through gerrymandered redistricting maps, igniting a political tug-of-war for local, state, and congressional seats.

Our democracy is under threat.

These anti-voter reforms are compounded by a thread of lies weaving its way through our country. The Internet is a petri dish for deception, and without a fierce defense of greater voting rights protection, the infection of disinformation, hate and vitriol will continue to fester.

Voting is not a privilege but a fundamental right that is essential for a healthy, well-functioning democracy.

Our citizens deserve more.

In conclusion, my testimony includes three policy recommendations for Congress and the administration:

1. First, increase funding for election administration. States like Florida that prohibit third-party donations to election officials are starving for funding to keep our democracy running.

2. Second, increase DOJ resources to expand enforcement capacity of the Voting Section, ensuring that all eligible voters can cast a vote, have their vote counted, and have access to accurate information.

3. And third, support nonpartisan federal voting legislation that protects all citizens. To realize the promise of democracy for all, we need to establish robust standards and restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act to its full strength to ensure every American can exercise their right to vote.

It is imperative that the federal government act now to protect the dilution, discrimination, and disenfranchisement of voters in Florida.

We look forward to working with you as you continue your focus on this important issue. Thank you and I look forward to your questions.

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