Voting rights: Forum highlights progress, work ahead

March 13, 2017

Ellen Freidin and Nancy Abudu. Photo by Jeff Borg

Ellen Freidin and Nancy Abudu. Photo by Jeff Borg

By Rachel A. Streitfeld

CIVIL LIBERTIES supporters were treated to a world-class event on voting rights on October 15, 2016, when the ACLU of Florida Greater Miami Chapter hosted a forum at Books and Books in Coral Gables titled: “What’s at Stake? Voting Rights and Civil Liberties in the 2016 Election.” It was a stimulating affair with an exceptionally qualified and richly experienced panel.

In March 2016, Nancy Abudu, the legal director of the ACLU of Florida, won a case against Jefferson County, Florida, when a judge found the county’s gerrymandering scheme unconstitutional. Ellen Freidin is the chairwoman of Fair Districts Florida, the immensely successful effort to amend Florida’s Constitution to prevent gerrymandering and to rid the redistricting process of intentional bias.

Gihan Perera is the executive director of New Florida Majority, the grassroots powerhouse taking on felons’ disenfranchisement, among other meaty voting issues. The moderator, Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, is a highly acclaimed trial attorney and a former president of the Greater Miami Chapter.

The issues addressed were numerous, all critical, and all current. For example, Perera recruited volunteers to gather signatures for a rights-restoration ballot initiative. On March 6, 2017, the Florida Supreme Court heard the proposed constitutional amendment.

If the justices say the ballot language conforms to constitutional clarity requirements, The New Florida Majority and others (including the ACLU of Florida) will campaign vigorously to reverse Florida’s shameful and extremely harsh disenfranchisement laws. Over 1.6 million Floridians have permanently lost their right to vote because they have felony convictions.

Abudu’s victory on the prison gerrymandering case was also discussed, leaving listeners aghast at the immoral audacity of the scheme that exploits prisoners for political gain. Prison gerrymandering is when state and local governments include prisoners as residents in their redistricting plans so they can draw district boundaries in a way that reduces the voting strength of actual residents in the area. Since prisoners can’t vote, including a prison in a district gives more power to the actual residents of that district and violates the “one person one vote” provision of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Also on the subject of gerrymandering, Freidin gave an encouraging update on the impact that Fair Districts amendments have had since their enactment. Article III of the Florida Constitution now contains standards for establishing Congressional and legislative district boundaries that require geographic compactness and prohibit racial bias and favoritism toward incumbents in the redistricting process. Since the amendments were enacted, political races in Florida have become exponentially more competitive.

The forum was an excellent opportunity to hear the stories of true leaders who have made lasting changes in Florida. It also gave ACLU supporters an energizing boost to get active just before the November election.

Now that we are on the other side of 2016, the work continues. The ACLU of Florida hosted the Resistance Training on March 11 at the Watsco Center at the University of Miami, where multiple campaigns were launched, including the rights-restoration ballot initiative. The meeting will be covered in detail in the upcoming issue of The Flame.

Rachel Streitfeld is the first vice president of the ACLU of Florida Greater Miami Chapter.