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Charlie Crist's prepared remarks for Senate Judiciary Committee on voting; Also, Bill Nelson remarks

19

December

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Below, the prepared text for former Gov. Charlie Crist's testimony this morning before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. (Times photo, Alex Leary):

Thank you Chairman Leahy, Ranking Member Grassley and thank you members of  the Judiciary Committee for inviting me to testify today on what is the most  fundamental of rights for Americans—the right to self-determination through  voting.

Quite literally, we are here today because just over 236 years ago, 56 brave American patriots signed away their lives by declaring independence from the  Great Britain in the name of all who lived in the colonies.  At the core of their  statement – our Declaration of Independence -- “We hold these truths to be selfevident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men” – embodies the simple principle that everyday Americans – the people who we all represent hold the power – that government is truly for the people, by the people – not the other way around.

In fairness, they didn’t get it totally right at the beginning.  Far too many Americans were initially denied the right to vote, and far too many more died in the ensuing battles to ensure that every American adult would have the right to participate in self-determination.  But throughout the history of this great nation, whether through laws or conflicts, America has always taken steps forward to make voting easier and more accessible – well, until this year.

For a good part of my adult life, I was employed in the service of the people of the great state of Florida, a state has had more than its share of voting drama.  For four of those years, I had the truly awesome privilege serving of state’s Governor, and during those four years, we undertook some important steps to make it easier for Floridians to vote.

• We eased the state’s vote by mail laws to make it easier for Floridians to choose to vote from the comfort of their own home.

• We instituted a standard fourteen days of in person early voting.

• We made paper ballots mandatory to ensure that there would be a record in the case of recounts.

• We streamlined the system so Floridian who had paid their entire debt to society could regain their right to vote.

And when, during the historic election of 2008, long lines at early voting sites led to some Floridians waiting for many hours to cast a ballot, your former colleague – and my former Chief of Staff George Lemieux and I figured out a legal justification for extending early voting hours so that no Floridian would be faced with an unnecessary wait at the polls.  In the end, some 54% of Floridians cast a ballot before election day in 2008 – and thanks to the steps we had taken, despite a record 8.3 million votes cast that year, we knew the outcome of our state’s election before the 11:00 news.  

Unfortunately, the last few years in Florida haven’t been so forward thinking.  In 2011, the state legislature voted for and Governor Scott signed a massive elections law designed, I believe, to make it harder for some Floridians to legally vote – and designed to encourage a certain partisan outcome.  The law, among other things, put ridiculous restrictions on the rights of everyday law abiding Floridians to register their fellow citizens to vote and reduced the number of early voting days from 14 to 8 – and under the law before the Justice Department demanded changes, could have reduced early voting hours to as few as 48 in some counties.  Furthermore, changes to the law made it harder for voters who went to the wrong precinct to cast a legal vote – which when combined with budget cuts in many counties that reduced the number of election day polling locations – resulted in unnecessary confusion and suppression on election day.  In addition, the state tried to purge nearly 200,000 legal Floridians from the polls.  

Thankfully, public pressure as well as questions from the Justice Department, forced the state to back down.

The outcome of these decisions was obvious.  Florida, which four years earlier was a model for efficiency, became once again a late night tv joke.  Voters who wanted to vote early were frequently subjected to lines of three and four hours –and as Governor Scott refused to take action to ease the lines, in some cases those lines extended to six and seven hours.  Election Day confusion led to horrifying lines again on Election Day, which played a role in Florida remaining in the undecided category until Thursday, some two days after the last ballot was cast.  Thankfully, the Presidency didn’t hang in the balance.

Senators, as you spend time thinking about how we can make voting easier and more accessible, I would encourage you to think long and hard about establishing some national standards, standards that would ensure lengthy in person early voting, as well as common sense provisions such as same day voter registration and allowing voters to vote at the precinct most convenient for them.  

I leave you once again with the words of our founding fathers – “Governments are instituted among men (and women), deriving their powers from the consent of the government.”  Ladies and gentlemen – we work for them.  We offer ourselves to their service and they choose – and as any of us who have lost well know, we don’t always like the outcome.  But that is how this works.  In the end, America wins and democracy thrives when more people vote.  

Thank you again for the invitation.  I look forward to speaking with you further about this important issue.

Click here to read Alex Leary's advance coverage of today's hearing.

And here's what U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson told the committee:

 

Chairmen Leahy and Ranking Member Grassley, thank you for holding this hearing on “The State of the Right to Vote After the November 2012 Election.”

Our goal is get to the bottom of why many places around the country, including my home state of Florida, experienced embarrassingly long lines at the polls and encountered unacceptable roadblocks to voting during this year’s November election.

I want to take this opportunity to share what we’ve learned so far with regards to attempts to suppress registration of new voters and voting itself in Florida.

Since Sen. Durbin brought his subcommittee to Tampa in January 2012, some new information has come to light.  

As it turns out, we now know that a key individual behind Florida’s controversial voting law was none other than the general counsel of the Florida Republican Party - Emmett “Bucky” Mitchell IV. 

According to testimony he gave in April as part of a federal voting rights lawsuit, Mr. Mitchell said he was asked to draft the original version of the legislation by state Republican Party leaders, including its executive director and two state GOP campaign operatives.

I would like to submit Mr. Mitchell’s full testimony from that lawsuit as part of the official congressional record on this matter.

And I would also note this isn’t the first time Mr. Mitchell’s name has surfaced with voting-related controversy.

In 2000, he was at the center of the State of Florida’s efforts to purge possible felons from the voter rolls.  That misguided effort led to thousands of eligible voters being turned away at the polls during the presidential election because their names were removed from voter rolls. 

The latest election law was introduced and passed in spite of vehement opposition from a wide array of groups because the law, among other things, reduced the number of early-voting days and canceled voting on the Sunday right before the Tuesday election.  The law also made voting harder for people who recently moved to another county and had a different address, because they couldn’t change their address anymore at the polls. 

Practically every one of the concerns of these groups – possible long lines, an avalanche of provisional ballots, court challenges – have come to pass.

Mr. Chairman, this committee will have to draw its own conclusions, but for me it’s pretty straight forward:  Florida’s 2011 election law changes were politically motivated and clearly designed to disenfranchise likely Democratic voters – and, not, as its Republican sponsors contended, to prevent voter fraud.  

Those who asked for the voting restrictions in Florida – including reduced early voting - held jobs with the sole aim of electing Republican lawmakers. 

The attorney who obliged them, the lawyer who wrote the bill, represented the state Republican Party.  He’s the same lawyer who is identified in separate testimony before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission as the person who created the 2000 purge list that led to thousands in Florida being erroneously identified as possible felons.

And let’s not forget that this effort in Florida took place against the backdrop of a broader Republican-led campaign to restrict voting.  Leading up to the 2012 election, at least a dozen states controlled by Republicans approved new obstacles to voting as part of a campaign linked to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which receives substantial funding from the Koch brothers.

Singling out Americans, stopping those who want to vote from going to the polls, and all the other solutions in search of non-existent problems must be stopped.  Not because of politics, but to protect the founding document of our nation, the Constitution.

So, thank you Mr. Chairman for this opportunity.  I look forward to continuing our work together on these issues that are critical to my home state of Florida and the country.

 

[Last modified: Wednesday, December 19, 2012 11:17am]

    

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