TAMPA — There's a good chance that one issue will dominate the upcoming Hillsborough County supervisor of elections race.
That would be the controversial changes to state law that shrank the number of days for early voting, put new restrictions on registering voters and expanded the use of provisional ballots.
Three men are running for the office. State Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, voted for the legislation before deciding to run for elections supervisor, getting lampooned on a late-night comedy show along the way.
Tom Scott, a Democrat who was formerly a Tampa City Council member and Hillsborough County commissioner, has joined a federal lawsuit that seeks to have the changes tossed out.
And fellow Democrat Craig Latimer now helps oversee elections in Hillsborough, one of five Florida counties exempted from the change while the courts review it.
The law reduced the number of early voting days from 12 to eight and requires third-party groups who collect voter registration forms to submit them within 48 hours instead of 10 days. It also requires people who report an address change on election day or show up without identification to cast a provisional ballot.
Scott, like other individuals and groups fighting the changes, says the new registration requirements and early voting changes discourage people from participating in elections, particularly minorities.
"The result is to suppress voter participation," said Scott, who is black. "What we ought to be doing is encouraging voter participation. It appears we're trying to go back in history and time."
Glorioso, who said he has been surprised by the level of outcry over the changes, insisting they do nothing to suppress voting.
New registrations are indeed down in Florida this election season compared to four years ago, a New York Times analysis showed.
Glorioso recently landed on Comedy Central's Colbert Report. He was part of a spoof segment called "People Who Are Destroying America" that profiled a Panhandle civics teacher facing a $1,000 fine for collecting voter registration forms from her students and then turning them in to her elections supervisor after a new, tightened 48-hour deadline.
The teacher, Dawn Quarles of Santa Rosa County, was a three-time offender who once missed the prior 10-day deadline, which could have disenfranchised her students, Glorioso said.
"I don't understand why someone would want to hold on to them for any length of time," he said. "I believe if you're organized enough to do a voter registration drive, you should be organized enough to turn them in on time."
He added that he doesn't understand why groups like the League of Women Voters have stopped collecting signatures.
He noted the early voting sites may stay open for the same 96 hours previously allowed, which should mean expanded hours at most polling locations, giving working people more opportunity to vote outside of traditional business hours. And it does so at a lower cost, Glorioso said.
Latimer, the current chief deputy to outgoing Elections Supervisor Earl Lennard, will face Scott in a Aug. 14 primary election. The winner will face Glorioso in the general election.
Latimer is critical of the elections law changes, which haven't gone into effect yet in Hillsborough but, if approved, he would have to carry out.
Hillsborough is one of five Florida counties where past discriminatory practices require the U.S. Department of Justice to approve changes to laws that affect voting.
Before the department ruled on the law's most controversial provisions, then Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning sought approval last year from a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., instead.
That's the suit Scott has joined along with the League of Women voters and other groups and civic figures. The Department of Justice asserted to the court last month that Florida has not proved the changes protect racial and ethnic minorities in the five so-called pre-clearance counties that include Hillsborough.
Latimer, in a point-by-point critique of the changes, described a law that seeks to address problems that don't exist.
While Glorioso notes the flexibility of keeping polls open longer hours on fewer days, Latimer says maintaining more days of early voting does the same thing. And he says technology is in place to protect against voter fraud — one of the main goals of the legislation — even though documented fraud is rare.
And punishing people trying to do something good —encouraging people to vote by getting them registered — doesn't make sense, Latimer said.
"I'm in the business to get people to register to vote," he said. "The more we can do to get people to register and to vote, that's what the democratic process is about."
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or [email protected]