Bills to restrict vote-by-mail and tighten other voting rules are racist, voter suppression attempts, a coalition of Black pastors, voting groups, and others including Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried charged Thursday.
Fried joined the Equal Ground Action Fund protest and news conference on the steps of the Old Capitol Thursday. She and other speakers denounced SB 90 from Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley and HB 7041 from Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a Spring Hill Republican, and urged the sponsors to withdraw the legislation.
Fried said the Legislature “is doing everything it can to suppress votes.”
“What this bill does is silence those voices. This bill does nothing good. It silences people who need a voice,” Fried said. “We must stand united to fight for this freedom.”
Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, did not explicitly charge that the bills were racist. But others at the event did, saying the bills’ purpose is to suppress voting in communities of color, voters who tend to support Democrats.
One pastor also vowed people would return to the streets if necessary to fight against voter suppression.
Fried and the Revs. Derrick McRae of Orlando, R.B. Holmes of Tallahassee, and Reginald Gundy of Jacksonville were joined by representatives of the ACLU of Florida, the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund of Florida, and other church, voting, and civil rights groups.
All insisted the bills could not be justified as responses to election fraud because Florida just completed what everyone agreed was the most-secure, smoothest, problem-free election in memory.
Therefore, they argued, the Republican majority designed the bills bills to suppress votes from voters of color, low-income voters, and disabled voters who heavily rely on vote-by-mail and early voting.
The two bills would shorten vote-by-mail request applications from covering two election cycles to just covering the immediate election cycle, meaning millions of voters would have to re-apply every two years instead of every four. They would eliminate or restrict the use of vote-by-mail drop boxes, which became popular last year as people sought to avoid crowds during the height of the coronavirus crisis. The bills would eliminate or restrict the ability to have others turn in ballots for them. The bills would also tighten rules for how voters may identify themselves.
Supporters contend the changes are necessary because abuses are possible under current law and have been seen in other states. Specifically, they warn against “ballot harvesting,” partisan operatives going door-to-door to show people how to vote, in exchange for turning in the mail ballots.
Those at Thursday’s conference weren’t buying it.
“We understand that this process seems to be targeted against communities of color,” said McRae, president of the African-American Council of Christian Clergy and pastor of the Experience Christian Center in Orlando.
Gundy, Florida chair of the African American Ministers in Action, pastor of Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in Jacksonville, and representing Faith in Public Life Action Fund, went further, calling the measure “a racist bill” intent on reducing the Black vote.
“Yes, we’ll adjust. Yes, we’ll get to the polls. Yes, whatever suppression you put out there, we’ll find a way to get around it,” Gundy said. “But why create a racist bill — that’s what it is — that will suppress people from going to the polls?”
Gundy warned the bills could spur another round of protests.
“We’ve been told we have to obey just law. But we have not been told we have to obey unjust law. If that means we have to get back in the streets, we will. If that means we have to do what we need to do to get you to listen to us, we will,” Gundy said.
He called Baxley out by name. Gundy said he accepted that Baxley is a man of faith, and would pray for him to conclude that the bill is a mistake and withdraw it.
“You, Brother Baxley, by doing that, prepare to stand before God some day and say I did what was right,” Gundy said. “Brother Baxley, let me tell you what I want you to know. We love you. We don’t hate you. We need you.”