TAMPA Evoking fiery images from the Civil Rights movement, local black elected officials urged minorities Monday to be aware of changes made to Florida's election laws and to vote in the Aug. 14 primary and Nov. 6 general election.
The officials, all Democrats, held a news conference in which they denounced so-called "voter suppression" laws passed by Republican-controlled legislatures around the nation, including Florida's in May 2011. Republicans say the laws are meant to root out voter fraud, not suppress minority voting.
"As a black woman, an elected official and representative of the people, it appalls me that the right to vote, which people fought for, marched for and yes, sometimes died for, is under threat," said state Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa. "That's why it's so important that the black community participate in the upcoming elections."
The Florida law, which is being challenged in court, changes the number of early voting days from 14 to eight, requires third-party voter registration groups to verify and turn in signatures within 48 hours, and limits voters' ability to make name or address changes at the polls.
However, none of those restrictions apply to Hillsborough County, which is one of five Florida counties that must have election changes preapproved by the U.S. Department of Justice because of past discriminatory practices.
The Florida Secretary of State has taken the more controversial aspects of the voting law out of the hands of the Justice Department and put them before a Washington, D.C., district court for review.
Though the voting law requirements don't apply here, Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller said news about the changes have confused people and may dampen turnout.
Also, Miller said, many voters are not aware a primary election is being held Aug. 14 that will decide Democratic and Republican nominees for the November general election. In some races, however, only one party is putting up candidates.
"Many elections will be decided Aug. 14 because only two people are running," both in the same party, Miller said. "This makes the Aug. 14 election all that more important."
The last day to register to vote in the primary is Monday. The registration deadline for the Nov. 6 general election is Oct. 9.
Doretha Edgecomb, the only black member of the Hillsborough County School Board, reminded voters they can cast ballots by mail and, for the first time, voters don't need a stamp. They can simply request a ballot be sent to their home and return it with a prepaid, self-addressed envelope provided by the elections office.
Craig Latimer, chief of staff for the supervisor of elections, said his office was able to reduce polling places since the last election. It used the money saved to finance the prepaid postage.
"The bottom line is, our office is financed by the taxpayers," Latimer said. "They already paid for it once; they shouldn't have to pay for it again."
Other officials at the news conference were Tampa City Councilman Frank Reddick, state Rep. Betty Reed of Tampa and Plant City Vice Mayor Mary Mathis. Reddick and Mathis reminded voters they need to show identification with a photo and a signature. Reed pointed out voters can begin early voting July 30.
The supervisor's office can be reached by calling (813) 272-5850. The office website is www.votehillsborough.org.