Miami-Dade county election officials check voting machines for accuracy. Photo: Getty
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The “restroom row” in Miami is the latest attempt to make it harder for minorities to vote

The Florida county – pivotal in the 2000 Bush-Gore battle – has backtracked on a policy that would have meant polling stations didn’t have disabled toilets.

It started off as a routine inquiry from a disability rights group in Miami over access to polling stations during an election.

What followed was an angry dispute in which election officials were accused of trying to discourage voters from exercising their democratic rights.

The “restroom row” in Miami-Dade county is symptomatic of a raft of political and legal battles being carried out across the country as states across the US pass new laws making it harder to vote.

These laws are being challenged by critics who say they are aimed primarily at the poor, blacks and Hispanics who are more likely to vote Democrat.

“The right to vote has not been challenged to such an extent since the Jim Crow era,” said Myrna Perez, the director of the Voting Rights and Elections Project at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“What is true is many of these restrictions are being introduced by states where the Republicans control the government.

“What is also true is that many of these states have also recently seen an increase in minority political participation.”

Miami-Dade, of course, was at the centre of the disputed 2000 Bush-Gore “hanging chad” election along with three other counties in Miami.

It was in Miami-Dade where 9,000 “dimpled punchcards” were ruled out, to the fury of the Democrats, who believe they were overwhelmingly in favour of Al Gore in a pivotal state which decided the outcome of the election.

So it was perhaps hardly surprising that Miami-Dade should find itself at the centre of another brouhaha in a country where lawyers are as important as folk who knock on doors in the electoral process.

The latest spat started when Marc Dubin, Director of Advocacy at the Center for Independent Living of South Florida, asked for disabled toilets to be made available at all polling stations.

“I was not looking at it from the point of voter suppression, but from the point of view of voters with special needs,” he said.

At the best of times Miami’s swamp-like climate is pretty uncomfortable and during the 2012 election, people were queuing for as long as six hours to cast a vote.

To put it mildly, he was rather surprised at the email he received from John Mendez, Miami-Dade’s Deputy Election Supervisor.

“Please note State statute does not mandate that the rest rooms in the polling location be ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. 

“As we discussed at the meeting in order to ensure that individuals with disabilities are not treated unfairly, the use of rest rooms by the Voters is not allowed on election day.”

Miami-Dade has since backtracked on the policy, which opponents said would have discouraged voters in the poorest polling areas, but Mendez remains in post.

Whether he “misspoke” or, to paraphrase Hillary Clinton, was “inartful” in his email remains unclear.

But Dubin had few doubts what the impact of this policy would have.

 ”This certainly does suppress voting, if you can’t get people out to vote, this will have an impact.”

In America vast effort seems to be devoted to combing the electoral roll and challenging the right of voters to turn up at the polling station at all.

According to Election Protection, a nationwide coalition of groups which seeks to defend the right to vote, some of the tactics could only be described as dirty tricks.

It cited fliers being issued in Ohio and Virginia saying Republicans should vote on election day and Democrats the day after.

There were also cases of voters being threatened with arrest if they turned up at a polling station if they had unpaid child support or parking tickets.

Whether these stories are apocryphal remains unclear but there is no doubt that sophisticated methods have been or are being adopted to discourage the “wrong” sort of voter.

Supporters of the changes in the law, imposing tighter controls and checks, argue that they are necessary to prevent fraud at the polls.

Opponents say the new laws are aimed at the poor, black and young – who are more likely to vote Democrat.

There have been two main drivers to the fresh challenges to the right to vote.

In June last year the Supreme Court disemboweled the 1965 Voting Rights Act, what many see as the flagship achievement of LBJ’s presidential term.

In a majority decision the court argued that the US had changed significantly in the decades since the act was passed.

The growing grip of the Republicans on state legislatures has also paved the way for new laws which could have a significant impact in some parts of the country during the mid-term elections later this year.

Since 2010, 180 bills imposing restrictions on the right to vote in 27 states have been passed, according to the Brennan Center for Justice and New York University School of Law.

As things stand, up to 22 states could have new voter restrictions in place. However, legal challenges have been mounted in seven: Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin. 

In 13 states, voters have to produce a government-issued photo ID card, such as a driving licence.

This, according to the Brennan Center, hits the poor, disabled, black and Hispanic and ethnic minorities far harder than the rest of the population.

In Texas, for example, Hispanics accounted for 11.8 per cent of the population according to the 2010 census.

But research in January showed that Hispanics accounted for 38.2 per cent of voters in the state without photo ID.

According to The Advancement Project, another group fighting the voting restrictions, one in 10 Texans lack voter ID and there are no facilities to issue the cards in 127 counties in the state.

In all, 10 states have introduced laws to restrict voter registration drives, though in some cases the restrictions have been struck down by the courts.

Other changes have seen eight states cutting back on extended voting hours or even allowing extra voting days. Again research has shown it is black voters who are most likely to lose out.

Another bone of contention is the right of people with a criminal record to vote. In  2012 research showed that around four million Americans were banned from voting because of their criminal past – with the toughest rules being enforced mainly in a hard core of states - Florida, Kentucky and Iowa.

Again there seems to be a sharp race divide with seven per cent of black Americans being disenfranchised, compared with 1.8 per cent of the population as a whole.

“This is not what the country needs,” Perez added.

“We should be looking to increase the number of eligible Americans who vote.”

 

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.