Groups Want Equal Access to the Polls for Communities Displaced by Hurricane Michael
BALTIMORE—(November 6, 2018) Florida officials have rejected a formal request from voting rights advocates to make polling locations more accessible to African-American residents of Panama City, Florida, who were hard hit by Hurricane Michael.
Late last week, a coalition of voting rights advocates, led by the NAACP and its Florida State Conference and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, sent a letter to Florida Secretary of State, Ken Detzner, Bay County Supervisor of Elections, Mark Andersen, and other Florida officials urging that the Glenwood Community Center early voting site in Panama City remain open for voting on Election Day so that African-American residents of Panama City would not have to travel outside the city to vote. The group also requested that trolley service hours be expanded to open at 6:00 a.m. and close at 8:30 p.m. to allow voters to ride the trolley to and from polling locations throughout Election Day. Board of Elections Supervisor Mark Andersen first responded that he had received no complaints from Panama City residents about the accessibility of voting locations.
When reminded that the requesting organizations include and represent members of the Panama City community, Mr. Andersen insisted that Panama City voters should be grateful that the Glenwood site was opened for early voting. He did not explain why the Glenwood site could be made available for early voting but not for Election Day voting. Nor did he explain why two other Panama City locations suggested by the requesting organizations, the City Hall and Rosenwald High School sites could not be made available for Election Day voting.
The civil rights organizations believe it especially cruel to misuse the occasion of a devastating hurricane as an opportunity to disenfranchise African American voters by compelling them to leave town if they want to vote.
“We are concerned that with the devastation in the Panama City area, many African-American voters simply will not have an opportunity to cast a ballot on Election Day,” said Adora Nweze, President of the NAACP Florida State Conference. “Simply by allowing the early voting site at Glenwood to remain open for one additional day, the Secretary of State and Supervisor of Elections could have helped to ensure that Panama City residents who are suffering so much as a result of Hurricane Michael would at least have a meaningful chance to participate in this crucial election.”
“It is unfortunate that in today’s America what would simply be the right thing to do become the difficult thing to do. There is no justification for making it so hard for African Americans, who were victims of the storm, to vote. Hurricane Michael was indiscriminate in its devastation of the Florida Panhandle, and Bay County’s officials should be equally indiscriminate,” said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Following the hurricane, Florida officials announced the opening of six “Mega Voting Sites” in the county, but none of those locations is easily accessible to Panama City’s African-American residents. Following the announcement of the original six voting sites, state officials announced that four additional sites, including three sites in predominantly white areas and the Glenwood Community Center, would be available for early voting but not for Election Day voting. Moreover, although the polls are open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Election Day, trolley service in Panama City will run only from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Therefore, voters who wish to cast ballots early in the morning or late in the evening on Election Day would be unable to ride the trolley to and from one of the six “Mega Voting Sites.”
“While we appreciate the difficulty of dealing with the effects of the hurricane on the eve of an election, the fact remains that the voting rights of African Americans are being compromised because of where the state has chosen to locate polling sites,” said Bradford M. Berry, General Counsel of the NAACP. “In the bad old days, polling locations were carefully chosen to minimize African-American voter participation. Because of that history, we are skeptical of the decision not to locate an Election Day polling site in Panama City, and we are deeply disappointed that Secretary Detzner and Supervisor Andersen did not accept our recommendations to make voting more accessible for Panama City residents,” said Berry.
“A failure to make voting accessible to every Bay County resident only adds insult on top of the injury of a devastating hurricane,” said Liza McClenaghan, Common Cause Florida Board Chair. “County officials were able to offer a temporary polling place to the African American Community on Monday and they should be making every effort to do the same on Election Day. Monday’s decision is regrettable, and a blow to the African American community that we sincerely hope Bay County officials will reconsider.”
In addition to the NAACP, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the voting rights coalition submitting the request to Florida officials included Common Cause Florida, the ACLU of Florida, and the Advancement Project. The coalition’s November 2, 2018 letter can be accessed here.
ABOUT THE NAACP:
Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the nation’s oldest and largest nonpartisan civil rights organization. Its members throughout the United States and the world are the premier advocates for civil rights in their communities. You can read more about the NAACP’s work and our six “Game Changer” issue areas by visiting NAACP.org.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. Now in its 55th year, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is continuing its quest to “Move America Toward Justice.” The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice for all, particularly in the areas of criminal justice, fair housing and community development, economic justice, educational opportunities, and voting rights.
Common Cause is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy. We work to create open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest; promote equal rights, opportunity and representation for all; and empower all people to make their voices heard in the political process.