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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.