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Daniel Tilson: Voting rights – from Selma, 1965 to Tallahassee, 2015

You’d think 50 years was long enough for Florida lawmakers to get something right. But when it comes to ensuring all Floridians have equal opportunity to exercise their right to vote, and then overwhelmingly choose to use it, most of us know we’ve still got a long way to go.

Here we are, fresh off weekend commemorations all over the country of the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama. Hundreds of activists were dramatizing the need for sweeping voting rights reforms by marching from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. No sooner had they left Selma, marching across the now-infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, than they were brutally attacked, gassed and beaten by Alabama state troopers.

But the broader American Civil Rights Movement and specifically the Selma Voting Rights Movement wouldn’t be beaten into anything near submission. The marches and movements continued, stronger than ever. And enough of the nation was sickened and outraged by the unprovoked attacks of law enforcement officers on defenseless protesters that President Lyndon Johnson and Congress gained the public support needed to pass and enact the Voting Rights Act of 1965 within a matter of months.

And now we find ourselves living through a whole new century and era of voter suppression and disenfranchisement, courtesy of the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF). This modern version of interfering with our constitutional rights is at least less pinned on racial prejudice and more anchored in old-fashioned dirty politics. In other words, in addition to African-Americans the targets of disenfranchisement now include Hispanics, Latinos, women, college students and other young voters, poor people; any demographic group deemed likely to vote for Democrats.

Hooray for progress, huh?

From hanging chads on ballots and other electoral skullduggery that ushered in the 21st Century by stealing a presidential election won by Al Gore and giving us eight awful years of Bush-Cheney; to the proven RPOF voter suppression conspiracies of recent years; to Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet taking a terrible step backwards on restoration of voting rights for ex-felons; to Scott’s repeated attempts to “purge” voting rolls of likely Democratic voters; Florida Republicans are stuck in reverse when it comes to ensuring or protecting voting rights in Florida.

Maybe even worse, we’ve slid backwards when it comes to the Florida Democratic Party’s (FDP) capacity and willingness to do whatever it takes to engage, incentivize and activate voters in groups targeted by the RPOF. Instead of planting seeds of progress and authentically gaining credibility in communities of color and poverty all across the state, by developing and cultivating nonpartisan, non-political projects that foster joint work to solve problems and improve conditions at the local level…we’ve seen nearly two decades of a not very merry-go-round of business-as-usual Democratic machine BS.

But…there’s hope.

An FDP task force will soon be sharing its ideas for how to do things differently. We shall see.

And a number of bills to improve the voting rights situation are on the table in the legislative session now under way. The biggest game-changer could be Senate Bill 228, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Clemens. SB 228 would enact much-needed online voter registration (like 24 other states have or will) before the 2016 presidential election.

But of course there’s a Republican competitor on the table too, which would push enactment off till after the 2016 elections. Because you see, it would take so much…time… and effort.

Things that make you go “Hmm.”

Maybe some year soon a brave Democratic legislator will file the real game-changing legislation we need, to enact Ranked Choice/Instant Runoff Voting. Read more here, and look for a column on it one of these days.

For now…keep your eyes on the prize of overcoming any and every effort to interfere with our voting rights. And keep your eyes on related bills moving through this legislative session.

Daniel Tilson has a Boca Raton-based communications firm called Full Cup Media, specializing in online video and written content for non-profits, political candidates and organizations, and small businesses. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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