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Black Vote May Be Threatened in Jacksonville

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (CN) - A black pastors group says the relocation of a voting center in Florida violates its rights and will hurt the black turnout at the polls.

Jerry Holland, the supervisor of elections for Jacksonville, Fla., allegedly opened a branch office at the Gateway Shopping Center in 2006, and it has seen heavy foot traffic over the years from black community members taking advantage of the early voting process.

In 2012, black voters cast at least 92 percent of the 11,400 ballots Gateway collected over the eight days of early voting, according to the complaint in the Middle District of Florida, citing an affidavit from professor Daniel Smith. Only one location in Duval County had a higher concentration of black voters, but that site still had 2,500 fewer black voters than Gateway had overall, the complaint states.

Pastor Reginald Gundy and the Florida Southern Christian Leadership Conference State Unit are the lead plaintiffs in the suit.

They say Jacksonsville should have renewed its lease with the owner of Gateway in 2013 since the department of public works determined its proposal was the most economical and feasible.

Instead, Jacksonville has decided to go with a new site, according to the complaint.

This location, One Imeson Center, is allegedly not convenient to public transportation.

Gundy and the other plaintiffs say black voters will have a harder time traveling to the new location at One Imeson Center.

"Due to work schedules, ability to travel to the polls and other reasons, the individual plaintiffs are impeded or prevented from consistently voting on Election Day and benefit from the early voting at the Gateway SOE Branch Office," the complaint states.

Gundy and the other plaintiffs claim that the changeup constitutes a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"The closing of the Gateway early voting location and moving the SOE Branch Office to another location will burden, hinder and infringe upon the right to vote of plaintiffs and other African American voters due to such voters' work schedules, ability to travel to the polls, and other reasons as well as a creating a return to times of greater voter confusion, and an unnecessarily difficult voting process," the lawsuit states.

Florida Southern Christian Leadership Conference Chapter is a civil rights group and a branch of the state and national Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

One of its primary purposes is to empower black citizens in civic and democratic endeavors, and to assist members of the black community in, among other things, voting rights issues, according to the complaint.

The group facilitates voter education and voter mobilization efforts.

Jacksonville has the largest number of black residents compared with cities in Florida its size. The city encompasses all of Duval County and has a population of 850,000, about 30 percent of whom are black.

Gundy and the other plaintiffs note that there is a history of keeping the black vote down in Florida. In the November 2000 elections, for example, 27,000 votes were not counted in Duval County.

"The cumulative effect of these failures [failures of votes that did not count and voters turned away from the polls] fell disproportionately upon our African-American population, leading to a concentrated loss of confidence in the system within this important segment of our community," the complaint states (brackets and emphasis in original).

Voting at Gateway should be restored, according to the complaint against Jacksonville and its elections supervisor.

The plaintiffs are represented by Neil Henrichsen of the Henrichsen Siegel law firm in Jacksonville.

Other plaintiffs in the action are Elder Lee Harris; Bishop Lorenzo Hall; Pastor Herb Anderson; Rev. Arron Flagg; Hazel Gillis; George Gillis; Louvenia Tippins; Gloria Simmons; Bonnie Brown; Delia Covington; Elaine Jackson; Lavonne Mitchell.

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