Elections overhaul en route to governorby Dara Kam | May 5th, 2011
An elections overhaul likely to wind up in court that would cut nearly in half the number of days for early voting and impose tougher restrictions on groups registering voters is headed to Gov. Rick Scott.
The GOP-dominated legislature easily pushed through the elections revamp over the objections of Democrats who argued the bill will make it harder for Floridians to vote and get their ballots counted.
The 157-page elections measure will reduce the number of days available for early voting from 14 to 8 but keep the same number of hours – 96 – and allow supervisors of elections to extend weekend hours.
Palm Beach County elections supervisor Susan Bucher estimated the early voting changes would cost her office more than $941 million to secure additional polling places, equipment and salaries.
The overhaul make it tougher for like the League of Women Voters, labor unions and the NAACP to sign up prospective voters by requiring them to register with the state, give voter registration forms to elections supervisors within 48 hours or face $1,000 fines, among other things.
Republicans said the changes are aimed at reducing voter fraud although fraudulent ballots have become a rarity in recent years thanks to past reforms including the creation of a statewide voter database.
“The fact is there’s a lot of bad actors out there and there’s an opportunity currently to game the system,” said Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, the Miami Republican carrying the proposal (HB 1355).
But Democrats argue the changes are aimed at suppressing Democratic voter turnout in 2012 because Democrats tend to use early voting more than Republicans and relied heavily on third-party groups to register voters in the 2008 presidential election.
“This is just a mean-spirited attempt to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning voters,” said Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Weston.
The bill would also eliminate a long-standing provision that allows people to change their address or name at the polls. Under the bill, voters who want to change their registration on Election Day will have to cast provisional ballots, which Democrats contend have a higher percentage of not being counted.
Critics say that will make it harder for college students who flocked to the polls in 2008 to vote in future elections.
“The hope is that those college students who are likely to be the most affected by this, their votes won’t count,” said Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-St. Petersburg.
But Sen. Mike Bennett, a Vietnam veteran, said that voting is too easy and voters have a responsibility to be prepared.
“How much more convenient do you want to make it? You want to go to the house? Take the polling booth with us?” Bennett, R-Bradenton, said. “I wouldn’t have any problem making it harder. I would want them to vote as badly as I want to vote. I want the people of the state of Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who’s willing to walk 200 miles…This should not be easy.”
Union leaders Thursday morning advised Senate Democrats to question the measure during floor debate to pave the way for lawsuits.
“The questions you ask lays the basis and foundation for the challenges on this,” Florida AFL-CIO president Mike Williams advised the Senate Democratic caucus this morning.
The Senate approved the measure by a 25-13 vote with two Republicans joining Democrats in opposition. The House passed it with a partisan 77-38 vote late Thursday.
Scott is expected to sign it into law.