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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired Battersea power station in 2012. Initially, it promised to build 636 affordable units. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers already having failed to develop the site, it was still enough for Wandsworth council to give planning consent. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls.

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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