By Erin Ferns
For most states this year, the economic crisis has taken precedent over other serious policy issues, including election reform. In fact, the few key states that are dedicating this year’s session to election reform instead of major budget issues are stirring up voters as they put their rights on the line. Like the highly publicized battles to pass voter ID in Texas and proof-of-citizenship registration requirements in Georgia, Florida’s notorious 80-plus page omnibus election bill takes the cake in breaking the spirit of democracy.
The Florida legislature is currently under fire for suddenly focusing on what critics call “draconian” measures that could potentially suppress voters.
“Our state faces the most dramatic budget crisis in recent memory and lawmakers are fast-tracking a bill loaded with costs that will discourage voter participation?” said Florida Public Interest Group spokesman, Brad Ashwell in a St. Petersburg Times report Monday.
Companion bills SB 956 and HB 7149 propose to raise multiple voting barriers through voter ID limitations, voter registration drive restrictions, excessive voter purges and increased reliance upon provisional ballots.
Although State Senator Alex Dias de la Portilla (R-Miami) claimed that the measures were a “response to complaints and problems in the 2008 elections” in an April 15 New York Times report, the legislature is virtually shutting off public input while denying an explanation for how the bill would address those complaints.
“This ridiculous bill [S 956] surfaced in the dead of night with no attempt to really discuss, question or debate what was going on,” said Rep. Janet Long (D-Seminole) in the St. Petersburg Times report. According to the report, public testimony was limited in the Senate to “about 10 minutes, and a House council shut down debate after only six minutes and denied several people the chance to testify in public.”
Serious criticisms of the bills were aired in the New York Times‘ Sunday editorial, which noted the bills’ potential impact on the state’s “sizable” elderly voting bloc, as well as its poor and minority voters.
The bills would restrict the use of photo IDs from retirement centers or neighborhood associations at the polls, an amendment that “would be a serious hardship for the many elderly people who do not have driver’s licenses.
“The legislation would also impose onerous and unnecessary rules on voter registration drives, including a requirement that registration forms must be turned in within 48 hours,” the Times editorialized. “Grass-roots voter registration drives play an important role in getting poor and minority voters registered. If this legislation passes, however, many groups may stop registering voters rather than risk jail sentences or fines.”
The Times also raised concern over the bills’ provision to “require election officials to purge voter rolls more frequently,” noting the state’s “sore point” regarding improper purges of voter rolls before the 2000 election, which resulted in the disenfranchisement of eligible voters.
Mobile voters, who tend to be young, low income, and minority citizens would also be affected by the measures, which would “require any voter whose address changes less than 29 days before an election to cast a provisional ballot,” the St. Petersburg Times wrote. Those voters, however “can now update their addresses at the polls when they vote.”
Yesterday, more than 38 voting rights groups, including Project Vote signed a letter to Republican Governor Charlie Crist, urging him to “speak out forcefully against these bills and to veto any resultant legislation.” The groups continued, “instead of fixing real problems–such as expanding access to early voting as you directed in November–they would disenfranchise eligible Floridians, for no legitimate reason and at significant taxpayer expense.”
While the bill quickly advances in the legislature, the uncertainty of Florida’s voting rights remains in question. According to the New York Times, “some of the proposed changes may have to be reviewed by the Department of Justice. Because of past voter-discrimination complaints, five counties in the state must have any changes to registration procedures cleared by the federal government.”
Crist has questioned the necessity of the bill, “strongly” hinting that he may veto it if it passes the legislature.
“What is it we’re trying to cure?” asked Crist in the St. Petersburg Times report. “The more opportunity you give people to vote, the better it is for democracy. So that aspect of it concerns me.”
To monitor SB 956 and other election bills, visit www.electionlegislation.org or subscribe to the weekly Election Legislation digest, featuring election bills in all 50 states, by emailing Erin Ferns at eferns [at] projectvote.org.