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On eve of primary election, Kathy Castor laments low turnout so far in Hillsborough County

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Tampa Bay Democratic U.S. Representative Kathy Castor expressed disappointment on Monday that only 13 percent of eligible voters in Hillsborough County have voted by mail or at the polls heading into Election Day on Tuesday, the last day to vote in this year’s primary election.

“We can do a lot better,” said Castor, who will face Republican Christine Quinn when she runs for her seat in Florida’s 14th Congressional District this November. “People need to value their right to vote, and they need to get out there tomorrow and exercise it. Thirteen percent is pretty dismal, so we can do better.”

Castor spoke at a press conference at held the Hillsborough County NAACP branch in Tampa. Dr. Bennie Small, local NAACP Chairman, attributed the paltry voting participation rate to apathy, as well as the fact that a primary election in late August doesn’t excite voters like a November general election.

Of course, there are also more than 1.5 million people in Florida who aren’t legally allowed to vote, thanks to the state’s outlier status when it comes to denying the automatic restoration of voting rights to ex-felons, or what Castor dubbed “the largest voter suppression effort in the entire country.”

Florida Democrats continue to talk about growing momentum to change that law, with Small saying, “we understand the Attorney General is going to take another look it.” The law could change if Governor Rick Scott and two of the three members of the Cabinet follow his lead. However, Scott has shown no inclination to do so.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi told the Miami Herald recently that she was open to reducing the wait time for ex-felons (now numbering over 10,000) to three years, but she still does not support automatic restoration for non-violent felons. Fellow Cabinet members Jeff Atwater and Adam Putnam did say that they were prepared to revisit the current law.

However, most of the energy on trying to change that law is a ballot initiative being pushed by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

“We’re not going to make it in 2016, but the petition drive is very close to the number of signatures needed to have the Florida Supreme Court approve the ballot language,” said Adam Tebrugge, a staff attorney with the ACLU. “Once it’s approved, that really should give a lot of impetus this campaign. “

Another barrier to full voter participation in this year’s elections, Castor said, is the fact that for the first time in a presidential election in 50 years,  the Voting Rights Act has been stripped of some its protections.  In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority struck down the formula used in the 1965 Voting Rights Act to determine which states and localities must “preclear” voting procedures with the Justice Department or a federal court. Nine states, most in the South, and parts of Florida and five other states were subject to the law. Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry counties were the ones under the VRA.

That change means that changes by local officials – say moving a polling site – no longer has to be “pre-cleared” by the U.S. Dept. of Justice. “Instead, you have to go a very expensive and time consuming route to court,” Castor said. She added that Democrats in the House will again try to pass legislation through the GOP-led House to reauthorize the Voting Right Act and restore protections removed by the high court’s decision.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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