Changes to Florida voting rules still mired in controversy


Published: Saturday, September 1, 2012 at 5:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 1, 2012 at 5:22 p.m.

Changes to Florida's voting laws were passed in 2011, but the full force of HB 1355 is sweeping the state today as the election season enters its final phase.

And both sides in this hyper-partisan debate have dug in on the issue.

Critics insist the changes were solutions in search of a problem, steps aimed at limiting access to the polls for minority voters and students — groups that supported Barack Obama in record numbers in 2008.

"It's a slap in the face," said Diyonne McGraw, president of the political action committee of the African American Accountability Alliance of Alachua County (the 4A's).

"(Gov.) Rick Scott is trying to suppress the vote and discourage people from voting."

Stafford Jones, chairman of the Republican Party of Alachua County, dismissed those concerns.

"That's their opinion," he said. "It's silly."

He agreed with sponsors of the Republican-backed legislation who insisted the fixes were needed to prevent voter fraud.

"This is not about denying anyone their rights," Jones said.

***

The main elements of the law restricted third-party voter registration, implemented the so-called purge of voter rolls and shortened the number of days for early voting. Each change has drawn legal challenges.

On Wednesday, a federal judge permanently blocked new rules that trimmed from 10 days to 48 hours the time that registrars have to turn in new voter registrations.

This was welcome news for groups such as the League of Women Voters of Florida, a plaintiff in the case, which had suspended voter drives rather than risk the punishments in the law for failure to meet the strict deadline.

"Florida's anti-voter law created impassable roadblocks for our volunteers," said Deidre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

Time is ticking away for these groups, however. The last day to register for the Nov. 6 election is Oct. 9.

For Democrats, the damage might already have been done.

An analysis by the Florida Times-Union of registrations since the law took effect in July 2011 shows that the number of new Democrats in Florida is way down.

During the 13 months beginning July 1 of the year before elections in 2004 and 2008, an average of 209,425 Democrats were registered, the review showed. From 2011 to date, the number was a mere 11,365.

In that same period, the number of registered Republicans rose by 128,039. The GOP average was 103,555 during the past two presidential cycles.

Macnab told the Times-Union that Democrats might have seen a bigger impact because registration groups often target areas that lean Democratic.

"We try to get to areas that don't have easy access to traditional means of getting registered," she said. "That's places like college campuses, senior centers and low-income communities."

The second controversial part of HB 1355 dealt with scrubbing voter rolls. Florida officials at first said they identified about 2,600 registered voters who may have been ineligible. County election officials, however, stopped using the state's list after finding it contained more than 500 people who were citizens.

Opponents insisted the steps were aimed at suppressing minority voters, pointing to a Miami Herald analysis showing that 87 percent of the people on the list are minorities.

Republican leaders, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, dismissed those complaints.

"How could anyone argue against a state identifying people who are not rightfully on the voter rolls and removing them from the voter rolls?" he said.

Ron Labasky, an attorney for the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, noted in published reports that, "Out of 11 or 12 million voters, that's a very small number. They shouldn't be on there, but it's very, very limited."

After months of legal jousting, U.S. Department of Homeland Security has agreed to let the state use an immigration database to screen voters.

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The battle now has shifted to the restricted days for early voting.

Begun in 2004 as a reaction to the botched presidential election in 2000 that left Florida a national punch line, early voting has been enormously successful around the state.

That was certainly true in Alachua County in 2008, when an average of 2,000 people a day flocked to the voting sites for the general election, Supervisor of Elections Pam Carpenter said.

HB 1355, however, sliced the number of early voting days from at least 12 to eight. Supervisors also have the discretion to open the polls for as many as 96 hours or as few as 48 over those eight days.

Scott has said he wants all 67 counties, including the five covered by federal voting laws, to provide 12 hours of early voting on each of the eight days.

A three-judge federal court panel in Washington, D.C., has ruled the reduction violates the Voting Rights Act in five Florida counties covered by the federal law because of past racial discrimination.

In Alachua, which is not one of the five targeted counties, opponents say the changes to early voting are aimed at suppressing minority votes.

"This is a threat to what people fought and died for, the right to vote," said McGraw of the 4A's. "This is in reaction to 2008, when African-Americans voted in record numbers for Barack Obama."

She said she agreed "wholeheartedly" with state Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, who has called the changes to early voting and Scott's threats to remove Monroe County Supervisor of Elections Harry Sawyer for threatening to defy the governor's plan to reduce early voting dates as "another chapter in the ongoing saga of the Republicans in America to suppress the vote of black Americans and other minorities."

Jones, head of the Alachua County GOP, said critics like Joyner are way off base.

"It's about tightening up the process," he said. "Any longer, and it's more expensive to all parties, the supervisor of elections and the candidates."

Early voting this year begins on Oct. 27 and ends on Nov. 3, a Saturday. That eliminates the final Sunday before Election Day, which traditionally had been when leaders in the black community rally voters from the pulpit to the polls.

In Alachua County, that final push has coalesced into Empowerment Sunday, a community gathering in downtown Gainesville sponsored by candidates and black churches.

The event, McGraw said, gives people the opportunity to hear the candidates speak and ask questions. In 2010, activist the Rev. Al Sharpton was here to fire up the crowd.

Then the people head off to the early voting sites. "We come in masses, just like in the '60s," McGraw said.

This year, with the changes to early voting, Empowerment Sunday will be on Oct. 28, nine days before Election Day.

"A week before the election is plenty of time for early voting," Jones said.

He said there is a "very good reason" for eliminating the final Sunday of early voting.

"Between the close of early voting and opening of voting on Tuesday morning, the supervisors have to sort out the precinct votes. This gives them more time to update the books."

Jones said this problem was evident on Election Day 2010.

"When voting opened at 7 a.m., some precincts did not have their paperwork done, the books did not match up," he said. "Potentially, a voter could have walked in and voted a second time because their name was not yet marked off as it should have been.

"In 2010, our own poll watchers witnessed this. Poll workers were still getting the precinct books updated," he said.

Carpenter said she recalls that a single precinct in the county had such an incident in 2010. "It was not widespread," she said.

She said the supervisors of elections asked only for flexibility on voting sites, not for any changes to the number of days for early voting. That change, she said, came when the bill was "dramatically amended" at the end of the 2011 legislative session.

Carpenter said she is watching the ongoing legal wrangling over the early voting changes and will set the times for Alachua County accordingly.

"We had a good response under old voting laws," she said. "It gave people more flexibility by being open more days. It's just as important as being open for more hours to fit into their schedules."

Carpenter, a Democrat elected in 2004, has been with the office for more than 20 years. Asked about instances of voter fraud here, she said, with the hint of a laugh, "No. It's not been an issue in Alachua County."

***

Fraud allegations have surfaced elsewhere in Florida after the primary elections in August. But they have nothing to do with faulty registration or early voting. Instead, the problems have been with absentee voting, an area not addressed by HB 1355.

Prosecutors in Miami-Dade have charged two people in Hialeah as suspected ballot brokers who, among other allegations, forged the signature of a terminally ill woman in a nursing home on a ballot. Authorities have identified 195 absentee ballots that had been collected by brokers.

The arrests do not point to problems with absentee ballots, Jones said. Rather, he said, they show that the system works.

"Voting requires everyone to keep their eyes and ears open," Jones said. "It's incumbent on everyone to participate.

"There's no need to make any changes because there is no evidence of a systemic problem. With early voting, supervisors were having trouble getting their work done before Election Day. That was a systemic problem, and there was a solution."

Carpenter was diplomatic in her response.

"That's an interesting observation," she said.

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