In Florida, the Republican controlled state legislature wants to overhaul election laws in ways critics say would disenfranchise voters and extend the dominance of the GOP in the state.
This latest onslaught to disenfranchise voters comes after Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott rescinded the rules allowing for automatic restoration of voting rights of tens of thousands of convicted nonviolent felons in the state, a move that critics say smacks of a return to Jim Crow-era laws in the Sunshine State since felons tend to be disproportionately members of minority groups.
Under the new rules established in March, Florida felons will have to wait a minimum of five years after they’ve served their sentences to apply for the right to vote. More serious offenders would have to wait seven years. Florida now joins Kentucky, Virginia and Iowa as the only states that deny felons automatic restoration of their rights to vote in elections after having served their sentences.
But now the state legislature is pushing a bill to cut early voting time by half, to make it harder for grass roots groups to register voters and to require people to vote provisionally if they moved since the last time they voted — a change elections supervisors say would affect the young and the poor the most. Both groups are traditionally Democratic voters. Republicans argue that move is needed to save money.
The story in the Miami Herald:
The 140-page Senate elections amendment was sponsored by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who chairs the Rules Committee and is the immediate past chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, defended the bill as voter-friendly, noting that it makes it easier for voters to request absentee ballots. But the proposed changes drew fire from election supervisors as well as the League of Women Voters, which successfully sued the state to block a previous round of restrictions on third-party voter registration efforts.
“We would hope to avoid going back to court,” said Ben Wilcox of the League of Women Voters. “We believe that citizens should be active, engaged, and informed participants in democracy.”
The bill also would push back the primary election by one week to Sept. 4, the day after the three-day Labor Day weekend holiday. Supporters said the change is needed so that the election won’t conflict with the Republican National Convention in Tampa, scheduled the previous week. Moving the primary would allow fundraising to continue during the GOP convention.
The bill would force voters who do not go to the correct precincts to cast provisional ballots — which are only counted in some cases. Since 1973, Florida has allowed voters to update their address at a polling place.
Elections supervisors oppose a provision that allows Secretary of State Kurt Browning, an appointee of Gov. Rick Scott, to issue written orders to supervisors, who are elected constitutional officers.
But what drew the most heat Friday was the Senate’s insistence that early voting be curtailed from two weeks to one. A surge in early voting was widely cited as a major factor in Obama’s 2008 victory in Florida, and then-Gov. Charlie Crist extended early voting hours because of long lines at early voting centers.
“Generally, early voting in Miami-Dade County has not been very efficient,” Diaz de la Portilla said. “What you see more often than not is that there is a trickle of two or three people a day at a very high cost to keep those public libraries and polls open. … We felt it was an efficiency measure.”
Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Aventura, said the crush of early voters in the last presidential election showed that two weeks of early voting is not enough. She called the bill a “Machiavellian” act by Republicans.
“It will disenfranchise and really anger a lot of people who are standing in line,” Margolis said. “I just think that it’s a very, very bad thing to do.”
As the restriction on early voting moves through the Florida Senate, the House is moving forward with a similar bill HB 1355, a bill which Deirdre Macnab, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, describes as bringing back “Jim Crow-style tactics to intimidate all Florida voters and volunteers who believe in the democratic process.”
HB 1355, drafted by the office of House Speaker Dean Cannon, stands to disenfranchise any Floridian who has moved but not updated their voting registration. Under current law, if you move and haven’t officially changed your address come election day, you can show up to a polling location, swear that you live in that precinct and vote on a regular ballot.
But under House Bill 1355, those folks would be forced to cast what are known as provisional ballots which are often not counted unless the information can be verified within 48 hours. The League of Women Voters estimates that it could disenfranchise the one in six Floridian voters who change residence in any given year.
HB 1355 also aims the procedure for registering voters by citizens’ groups more onerous. It would require anyone collecting voter registrations to register with the state and force registration volunteers to sign statements that threaten fines for application mistakes. The goal is to discourage third party organizations, such college groups and unions, from leading voting registration drives. For Florida’s GOP, the fewer citizens that vote the better.