TAMPA, Florida — It's fitting that 20-year-old University of South Florida junior Vanity Shields, 20, chose to speak to MTV's Power of 12 in the shadow of her campus' Martin Luther King Jr. memorial reflecting pond.
Nearly 50 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discriminatory laws that disenfranchised black voters thanks to the tireless work of the civil-rights giant, Shields is preparing for another voting-rights fight in her state. The president of the NAACP chapter on the USF campus and first-time voter is concerned that a new Florida law, ostensibly aimed at cutting down on voter fraud, might leave many young and African-American voters off the rolls this presidential election year.
"I personally feel that the rules are setting up minority and young voters to fail," the health sciences major said of the new law, which carries heavy penalties for third-party organizations trying to register new voters if they fail to comply with the sometimes-byzantine rules. "Now they have 48 hours to fill out this massive amount of paperwork."
A portion of the new law includes restrictions on community-based voter-registration drives that require anyone registering new voters on behalf of organizations such as Rock the Vote or the League of Women Voters to turn all forms in within 48 hours of obtaining a signature or face unspecified civil penalties. Those two groups have been forced to suspend their voter-registration efforts in Florida this year because, according to a press release announcing a lawsuit seeking to block the new provisions, they "include burdensome administrative requirements, unreasonably tight deadlines for submission for completed forms and unnecessarily harsh penalties for even the slightest delay or mistake."
Shields said the USF NAACP chapter has been very active on the issue and planned a general body meeting called "The Colors of Justice" on Monday (January 30) to discuss the new rules and raise awareness about them. There will also be a voter-awareness rally soon, though she said efforts such as the NAACP's get-out-the-vote "Souls to the Poll" action from years past has been canceled this year because of new restrictions on registering voters on the Sunday before an election.
"I am originally from New Jersey, and Hillsboro County in Tampa is a pre-clearance [area]. ... What that means is that people who were previously registered are still able to vote, but with this new law, if Hillsboro County were not pre-clearance, I would have to go back to New Jersey to vote," said Brianna Simms, 20, the second vice president of the USF NAACP chapter. "As a college student, I don't have the funds or the time to do that, so that would limit my impact on the country in choosing our next president."
Shields said awareness of the voting issue is pretty low at the moment, but she plans to start posting about it on Twitter and Facebook, distribute fliers and ask her fellow students if they know about the changes. "I feel that our demographic is being targeted and that they're trying to silence us, but we will not be silenced," she said. "We will speak our minds and keep our right to vote."
MTV is on the scene in Florida! Check back for up-to-the-minute coverage of the primaries and stick with PowerOf12.org throughout the 2012 presidential election season.