The Voting Rights Act has been in the news lately. This landmark legislation, passed in 1965, dismantled discriminatory barriers to voting, representing real progress in ensuring all the right to vote.
The issue before the United States Supreme Court was one aspect of the law known as "pre-clearance." In its June decision the Court nullified the "pre-clearance" provision of the law, citing the use of outdated statistics in identifying past discrimination in covered jurisdictions.
Hillsborough County, along with four other Florida counties, was subject to these provisions. In these counties election supervisors had to get advance approval from the federal government for any change in voting - from a polling site, new precinct lines to new district lines.
Anyone following the civil rights struggles during the 20th Century knows that institutional barriers to voting were in place throughout the country and certainly not limited to Hillsborough County. If past discrimination was the criterion, the entire state of Florida would have fallen under the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act.
So, what were those past discriminatory practices in Hillsborough County that brought us under the pre-clearance requirement for the past 38 years?
Could it have been the creation of Tampa's White Municipal Party in 1908, devised with the openly declared intent to deny blacks participation in Tampa's municipal elections?
Was it the resistance by local election officials to the historic 1944 United States Supreme Court ruling eliminating the white-only primary that finally allowed blacks to register in the Democratic Party?
Perhaps it was the history of limiting voter registration to the business hours of the Supervisor of Registration's office in downtown Tampa during the 1950s despite repeated requests from community leaders to broaden outreach efforts?
No, it was none of the above.
Hillsborough County was subject to pre-clearance and received the distinction of "past discriminatory practices" because in the early 1970s it did not provide ballots in both English and Spanish.
The pre-clearance section of the Voting Rights Act involves a little more explanation. It goes like this:
In 1975, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was amended and broadened to address members of "language minority groups." A low turnout in the 1972 Presidential election combined with more than 5 percent of the voting age citizens being members of a single language minority group meant a jurisdiction had to have their ballots in both English and the other covered language, such as Spanish.
The federal government used the 1970 Census to determine which jurisdictions fell under this requirement. The problem was the 1970 Census asked only 5 percent of the population if they were of Hispanic or Spanish origin or descent; this wasn't a required census question until 1980. So, in Hillsborough County there were no available statistics to demonstrate that 5 percent of the voting age population was of Spanish or Hispanic origin or descent who spoke Spanish instead of English.
Lacking the data from the Census, the Department of Justice used other approaches to form a conclusion about our voters, including a count of Latin surnames in the county - a technique that assumed a Latin surname meant Spanish was one's primary language. Not a firm hypothesis given that Tampa's earliest residents came from Spain, Italy and Cuba.
The supervisor of elections in 1975 was Robin Krivanek. She took great pains to demonstrate to the Justice Department, notwithstanding the English-only ballot, voters with Latin surnames in Hillsborough County participated at a greater rate in elections than other voters. In one report to the Justice Department, Krivanek selected three targeted precincts in Tampa that had more than 60 percent Spanish language minority population based on the criteria being used by the federal government. Her data demonstrated that the rate of participation in those precincts exceeded that of the City of Tampa as a whole, the county of Hillsborough, or the entire state of Florida.
The late Congressman Sam Gibbons said in 1975, when asked about bringing Hillsborough County under the new language requirements, "In my area, Spanish-speaking people vote the mostest."
Nonetheless, the Justice Department made the determination that the 5 percent threshold existed, and the county was tagged with discriminatory practices for not having a bilingual ballot in 1972. We have been a pre-clearance county ever since. In 1976 our ballots were, for the first time, in both English and Spanish.
It has undoubtedly been important to have bilingual ballots; I saw the need for it first hand when I served as Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections. Whether the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act was truly based on viable statistical data in our county is uncertain. Could we have adopted bilingual ballots without Justice Department intervention? Yes. Other jurisdictions have bilingual ballots without being a pre-clearance county.
Once in place, the pre-clearance provision has mostly been associated with issues related to African-American voting. The only time the Justice Department ever intervened in any meaningful way in our local elections was in 1984 when the election for the County Commission under the new voter-approved Hillsborough County Charter was canceled because the Charter had not been pre-cleared. The Charter implemented, for the first time, single member districts, giving an African-American an opportunity to be elected. When the Charter was finally approved and the election was conducted, it was at a special election in 1985. The irony: the turnout at the special election was only 18.5 percent. Had the election been held as scheduled in November 1984, the turnout would have been 78.44 percent.
The most high-profile use of the pre-clearance requirement of the five counties came recently when, in 2010, the governor and the Legislature passed sweeping changes to our election laws ranging from limiting the number of hours of early voting, voter registration requirements, and a planned purge of the voter rolls. Because of the required federal review, certain sections of the law could not be enacted.
Whether or not the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act has been a useful tool to prevent discriminatory voting practices in our county is subject to debate. Research reveals that the reason for our inclusion on this list was, at the time, statistically questionable. If our experience in the 1970s mirrors the rest of the affected jurisdictions across the country, it is not surprising that the justices asked for updated statistics. As with all of our history, this story has no simple narrative.
Pam Iorio is a former Hillsborough County commissioner, supervisor of elections and Tampa mayor. Readers can contact her at email@example.com.