North America 29 July 2014 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. Miami-Dade county election officials check voting machines for accuracy. Photo: Getty Sign UpGet the New Statesman's Morning Call email. Sign-up 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.” › Tracey Thorn: Real life always intrudes on holidays. 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