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Activists in Florida say Black voters have seen their political power curtailed

A voter leaves after casting her ballot in a special congressional election on Jan. 11 in Miramar, Fla.
Rebecca Blackwell
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AP
A voter leaves after casting her ballot in a special congressional election on Jan. 11 in Miramar, Fla.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A combination of new election laws and congressional redistricting has made it harder for Black communities in Florida to organize and vote, activists say.

Florida, which concludes its primary elections on Tuesday, is among various Republican-led states that have passed laws since the 2020 election that place new restrictions on voters — as well as on third-party groups that play a big role in registering racial minorities in Florida.

Ben Frazier and his small civil rights organization, the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, recently spent an afternoon in the city helping a group of older Black voters update their voter registration.

That way, Frazier said, there are no issues when they go to vote.

"We don't want your voter registration form to be thrown out for any reason," he said. "They are doing a lot of different things to suppress the Black vote in this city and in this state."

Last year, Republican lawmakers in Florida passed Senate Bill 90, a sweeping law requiring people to apply to vote by mail more often. It also set new limits on drop boxes. And this year, legislators passed Senate Bill 524, which creates new and harsher penalties for voter registration organizations for things like turning in forms late.

And notably, Frazier said, the latter law created a new policing unit focused on voting crimes.

"I think all of that has a chilling effect. People are afraid of the police," he said. "We know that this is one of many attempts to suppress the Black vote."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference Thursday in Fort Lauderdale, where he announced that the state's new Office of Election Crimes and Security is in the process of arresting 20 individuals across the state for voter fraud.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference Thursday in Fort Lauderdale, where he announced that the state's new Office of Election Crimes and Security is in the process of arresting 20 individuals across the state for voter fraud.

On Thursday, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis announced this new policing unit is charging 20 people with voting illegally in 2020. He said those individuals had felony convictions that prevent them from getting their voting rights back. Several details were not made public at the time, though, including that some of those charged have told the Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald that they weren't told they couldn't vote. Their races were also not disclosed.

DeSantis said in a press conference that the charges and the investigation carried out by the new agency mark the beginning of the state getting serious about combating alleged voter fraud.

"Before we proposed this [unit] there were just examples of this stuff seeming to fall through the cracks," he said. "So this is just the opening salvo, this is not the sum total of 2020." Experts have found voter fraud to be exceedingly rare.

Black activists say the reaction to the 2020 election from Republicans leaders in the state is part of a larger effort to diminish Black voting power.

Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled that SB 90, in particular, is part of the state's long and "grotesque" history of racial discrimination. Soon after the ruling, an appeals court ordered that the law stay in place while legal challenges worked their way through the courts. The Justice Department in recent days agreed that the law is intentionally discriminatory.

Driving change in Duval County

Reginald Gundy, the pastor at Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in Jacksonville, says all these new rules in Florida feel deeply personal.

Gundy has spent a lot of his time registering voters in communities of color — mostly Black voters — in North Florida. Since 2018, Gundy estimates he's registered more than 80,000 people in Duval County alone, which is the county encompassing Jacksonville.

Gundy also works to get the vote out, making sure that the people his group registers actually go to the polls during elections.

"If they don't go to polls, we would be like, 'Hey, look you are registered to vote, you haven't voted, you need to go vote,' " he said. "We can't tell people who to vote for, but we've been very good at that. So, as a result of that it has brought about a change in Duval County."

In 2020, Joe Biden won Duval County. It was the first time in decades a Democratic presidential nominee won there.

Gundy says this change is not something that went unnoticed by Republican leaders in Florida. In fact, he thinks it's why DeSantis recently redrew the state's congressional lines in a way that cut the number of opportunity districts for Black voters in half.

Before redistricting, the state had four seats where Black voters had enough votes to elect the candidate of their choice. Now the state only has two seats like this. One of those lost seats included Black communities in Jacksonville.

"The way they have reconfigured — redrawn the district in Duval County — has taken away the right for Blacks to vote and have a representative in Congress," Gundy said. "We will have a congressional leader without proper representation for who we are."

Gundy says Black voting power and organizational power is the weakest it's been in decades.

"It's sad and we've got to figure out how to fix it," he said.

In a statement, DeSantis' office said his redistricting decision had nothing to do with politics. A spokesperson said the governor's priority was to "make sure that the congressional maps would be constitutional and withstand anticipated legal challenges."

The argument DeSantis made to the state legislature when he vetoed their maps and submitted his own is that he thought the majority-minority district that included Jacksonville is unconstitutional. In a letter to lawmakers, he said the district wasn't compact and "didn't conform to usual political or geographic boundaries." He argued the district was written to favor one race over another, which DeSantis said violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Michael Sampson II, with the Jacksonville Community Action Committee, says he does not buy that DeSantis — who's thought to be considering a presidential run — didn't make a political calculation here.

"It's a clear choice to dilute the Black voting power, the Black political power in D.C., especially as the governor is planning his run for president," he said.

Sampson adds that what is happening in Florida amounts to a "white blacklash" reacting to a summer of civil rights protest following the murder of George Floyd.

Christina Kittle with Florida For All agrees.

"There's been just a clear attack on organizers and protesters within the Black community, especially since 2020," she said. "When there are clear attacks like that it does make it difficult for us to move. But I don't think ... it hasn't stopped us. We are still out there doing the work. I see other people are too. It's just more difficult."

Meanwhile the state has big elections on the horizon this fall. DeSantis is up for reelection. And Rep. Val Demings is vying to oust Sen. Marco Rubio. If she wins the uphill battle, Demings would be the state's first Black U.S. senator.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.