WASHINGTON — Sen. Bill Nelson on Thursday asked the Justice Department to probe whether new voting laws passed in Florida and more than a dozen other states were part of a coordinated effort to suppress voter turnout among millions of people in next year's presidential election.
Nelson, a Democrat who will be on the ballot himself in Florida next year, asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate "whether new state voting laws resulted from collusion or an orchestrated effort to limit voter turnout."
Most of the potentially disenfranchised belong to the Democratic Party's core constituencies — minority, elderly, young and low-income voters.
"The Department needs to determine whether or not there was broad-based motivation to suppress the vote — and, if so, whether any laws were violated," Nelson wrote.
Thirteen states last year approved changes to their election laws and another 24 states are weighing measures that proponents say are needed to protect against voter fraud and to prevent illegal immigrants from casting ballots. Much of the legislation was proposed by the conservative advocacy group the American Legislative Exchange Council, Nelson said, whose founder Paul Weyrich was once quoted as saying "I don't want everybody to vote."
New voting laws signed in May by Republican Gov. Rick Scott curtail the number of early voting days in Florida from 15 to eight. The law also makes it more difficult for third-party groups, such as the League of Women voters, to register voters by giving them only 48 hours to turn in voting forms.
Nelson has been particularly critical of changes to early voting that no longer allow people to vote on the Sunday before elections — a prime time for many African-American voters who would cast their ballots following church services. And he met with Jill Cicciarelli of New Smyrna Beach High School, a civics teacher, who may have run afoul of the law for turning in late registration paperwork from some of her students.
Nelson earlier this week in a speech on the Senate floor pointed out that the new, stricter voting laws are in states that make up two-thirds of the 270 electoral votes need to win the presidency. That includes Florida, where his own re-election — and the presidential contest — will mark the first major test.
In Washington, House Democrats on Thursday also ratcheted up their efforts to combat new voting laws they charge are deliberate efforts to keep its core constituencies from casting ballots next year.
Members of the House Democratic leadership, the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus unveiled on Thursday a letter they're sending to election officials urging them to oppose the new voting measures, which a recent study said would adversely impact the ability of more than 5 million people to register or vote.
Proponents disagree, saying tougher voting laws are needed to protect against rampant voter fraud and to ensure that illegal immigrants aren't casting ballots.
In Florida, the Justice Department already is reviewing 80 separate provisions of the new laws to ensure they don't violate voting rights in five Florida counties with a history of voter discrimination. So far, it has cleared 76 of the provisions as non-discriminatory — although the review applies only to the five counties. The other four more controversial provisions will be reviewed by the courts, said Chris Cate, a spokesman for Secretary of State Kurt Browning.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he had spoken to Nelson about voting issues in Florida, and although the problems experienced by Cicciarelli gave him pause, he doesn't believe there's a concerted effort to limit voting.
Alex Leary of the St. Petersburg Times contributed to this report.