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Black activists say Florida's new election laws and map weaken Black voting power

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

This coming Tuesday in Florida is primary day, and some activists say this election is happening at a time where Black voters in Florida have far less political power than they've had in a long time. They blame Republican-backed voting laws as well as a new congressional map. NPR's Ashley Lopez reports.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: It's a muggy afternoon, and Ben Frazier is at a park in Jacksonville. He's sitting in a circle with some older Black voters from the area. Some of them are dictating their information to volunteers with Frazier's group who are filling out voter registration forms.

BEN FRAZIER: I want the canvassers to fill out the form - period, point blank, over and out.

LOPEZ: There are a few local organizations doing outreach in the park. Frazier's small civil rights group is the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville and is making sure these voters have an updated voter registration record.

FRAZIER: We don't want your registration forms to be thrown out for any reason. They're doing a lot of different things to suppress the Black vote in this city and in this state.

LOPEZ: Since the 2020 election, Florida Republicans have passed voting bills that Frazier says will make it harder for Black people to vote and for groups like his to organize. Senate Bill 90 requires people to apply to vote by mail more often and sets new limits on drop boxes. Another, Senate Bill 524, increases and creates new penalties for voter registration organizations for things like turning in forms late. And notably, the law creates a new policing unit focused on voting crimes.

FRAZIER: Yeah, I mean, I think all of that has a chilling effect. People are afraid of the police. We know that this is just one of many attempts to suppress the Black vote.

LOPEZ: Just yesterday, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis announced this new policing unit is charging 20 people with voting illegally in 2020. He said these individuals had felony convictions that precluded them from getting their voting rights back. He said the charges mark the beginning of the state getting serious about combating alleged voter fraud.

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RON DESANTIS: Before we proposed this, there were just examples of this stuff seeming to fall through the cracks. So this is the opening salvo. This is not the sum total of 2020.

LOPEZ: It's unclear, though, whether those charged knew they couldn't vote. We also don't know their race. But Black activists say these new laws are part of a larger effort among Republican leaders to diminish Black voting power. Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled that SB 90 in particular is part of the state's long and grotesque history of racial discrimination. But an appeals court kept the law in place. In Jacksonville, Reginald Gundy, the pastor at Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church, says the state's racial history has motivated his civic engagement group to register more than 100,000 people across North Florida since 2018 and get them to the polls.

REGINALD GUNDY: They don't go to polls, we would - you know, hey, look, you haven't - you registered to vote, but you haven't voted. You need to go vote. We can't tell people who to vote for, but we've been very good at that. And so as a result of that, it has brought about a change in Duval County.

LOPEZ: In 2020, Joe Biden won Duval County. It was the first time in decades a Democratic presidential nominee won there. Gundy says this change was noticed by Republican leaders in Florida. In fact, he says, he thinks this is why Governor DeSantis recently redrew the state's congressional lines to eliminate a seat in Jacksonville, where Black voters had a lot of influence on who got elected.

GUNDY: The way they have reconfigured, redrawn the district of Duval County has taken away the right for Blacks to vote and have a representative in Congress. We'll have a congressional leader without proper representation for who we are.

LOPEZ: In a memo to state lawmakers, DeSantis said he thought that the district was unconstitutional because it was written to favor one race over another, citing the equal protection clause. Regardless of this reasoning, though, experts say this decision will likely affect turnout among Black voters. Andrea Benjamin, at the University of Oklahoma, says research shows Black voter participation suffers when these voters are drawn out of districts with Black incumbents.

ANDREA BENJAMIN: You know, I think that has to do with sort of who's outreaching, who's contacting voters. You know, the old saying of sort of I didn't vote because no one asked me to - right? - this idea that if someone's from your community, not only do you think that they might do a good job representing you, they also might do a better job outreaching to you - right? - so mobilizing you to vote.

LOPEZ: Black activists in Florida say they are undeterred, but they recognize it's going to be harder to organize in this environment. Meanwhile, the state has big elections on the horizon. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is up for reelection, and Val Demings is vying to oust Senator Marco Rubio. If she wins the uphill battle, Demings would be the state's first Black U.S. senator.

Ashley Lopez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.