Voter apathy — not Florida’s new voting laws — may hurt turnout in 2012

The congregation repeated every word of the Rev. Jesse Jackson as if he were administering an oath.

“Revive easy access to voting,” Jackson said recently at the 93rd Street Community Baptist Church in Miami. “And stop voter suppression.”

Yup. It’s campaign season.

Cue the talk among liberals that conservatives are trying to rob Democrats of their votes.

This year’s target: A Republican election law, House Bill 1355, which cracks down on voter registration drives and eliminates early voting on the Sunday before Election Day.

A pain? Definitely.

But voter suppression? Not really.

Changing times

This isn’t Bull Connor siccing German shepherds on people. It’s also nothing like Florida’s Jim Crow-era constitutional provision denying former felons the right to vote in a state where more than half the prison population is black.

This is the Republican Party changing election-year rules to keep the voter-registration rolls from quickly growing more Democratic.

“I don’t see it as voter suppression,” said Daniel A Smith, a University of Florida political scientist who is studying the new law’s effects. “This is more an effort to constrain voter participation under the guise of fighting fraud.”

Smith points out that the data clearly show the elections law disproportionately affects black and Hispanic voters.

Meanwhile, partisan lines are forming over the state’s new effort to identify and remove noncitizen voters from the rolls. The state preliminarily identified 180,000 potential noncitizens — many of them black and Hispanic — but the final number of noncitizens on the voter rolls is likely to be much lower.

But there could be a more subtle problem for Democrats and President Barack Obama. It’s not so much “suppression.” It’s more like psychological “repression.”

Quite simply: Democrats have held themselves back from voting.

Case study

Consider what happened at Precinct 248, a polling station in the black neighborhood of 93rd Street Community Baptist church.

In 2008, 1,810 voters cast ballots — 83 percent of them for Obama.

In 2010, only 958 voters cast ballots — 71 percent for African-American Congressman Kendrick Meek in his failed U.S. Senate bid. That’s a drop of 47 percent.

What happened in between those two years?

Conservatives rallied. Democrats stayed home. There was no major change to “suppress” voters.

In 2006, liberal groups like the Brennan Center at New York University raised the specter of widespread voter disenfranchisement over a voter ID law that disproportionately affected minorities and young people. Those voters went on to flock to the polls and sweep the first black president into office.

Now, Democrats point out that, since HB 1355 passed last May, 81,000 fewer people registered to vote when compared to a comparable period in the 2008 election cycle.

Here’s what they’re not saying: The Democrats lost voters between 2008 and 2010, hemorrhaging 91,000 people. Again, that was before any new voter law was passed.

Also, the major voter-registration group ACORN disbanded, leaving the registration work up to smaller, third-party groups that now find it tougher to do their work because Republicans have moved the goal posts.

Regardless of those efforts. Democrats have a major edge. They have 443,000 more active voters than Republicans in a state of 11.3 million active voters.

If they’re excited and inspired and vote the party line, they’ll secure another term for Obama. Problem is, Obama isn’t — and perhaps can’t — offer the same type of inspiration he did in 2008. Unofficial surrogates like Jackson, who in Miami mentioned the racial riots and “martyrdom” of blacks far more than the word “hope,” aren’t broadcasting much of a positive message, either.

“One thing worse than slavery is to adjust to it,” Jackson said, acknowledging that voter apathy is a problem.

But so is spreading a negative message about “voter suppression.” Sure, it can fire up some voters, but it can leave others at home.

The message also conflicts with the one delivered by another black leader, Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Penelope Townsley, who spoke a few moments before Jackson.

“Voting,” she said, “has never been easier.”

Neither has delivering rhetoric from a pulpit.