TALLAHASSEE — The latest House makeover of Florida election laws stirred intense controversy Thursday as unions and grass roots political groups complained that it would suppress 2012 voting in a state Barack Obama won in 2008.
By a 12-6 party-line vote, the House State Affairs Committee approved the new bill, setting up a vote by the full House. Similar legislation will be taken up Friday by the Senate Rules Committee.
The 150-page rewrite surfaced the afternoon before the vote. Two weeks ago, a previous version of the same bill brought criticism from Democrats that it was being rushed.
The bill's most controversial provisions would impose new restrictions on groups that register voters, shorten the validity of voter signatures on citizen initiatives from four years to two and require voters to cast provisional ballots if they move to another county.
For nearly 40 years, Florida has allowed voters to update their voting address or a name change at the polls when they vote.
But Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the sponsor of HB 1355, said that's an invitation to voter fraud.
"You're increasing the risk that mischief or fraud could occur," Baxley said.
A spokesman for Secretary of State Kurt Browning, the state's chief elections official, said that in 2010, no cases of voter fraud were referred to the agency concerning voters changing their name, address or political party affiliation at a polling place.
Neither the Department of State nor the state association of election supervisors recommended the change. Supervisor David Stafford of Escambia County cautioned lawmakers that it could cause havoc — especially in the state's largest counties— if a lot more voters have to cast provisional ballots.
"The more people you have voting provisionally at a polling place, the more disruption you're going to have," Stafford said.
Critics said the stricter provision would disproportionately affect college students, military personnel and low-income people, who are more likely to move more frequently.
"Any system that denies people the right to fill out a normal ballot is a recipe for disenfranchisement," said the ACLU's Danielle Prendergast.
"Stop this assault," said Rich Templin, who represents the Florida AFL-CIO.
Ben Wilcox of the League of Women Voters said the bill was "good old-fashioned voter suppression."
Wilcox was most critical of a provision reducing from 10 days to two the time voter registration groups must submit voter applications to elections offices or face a $50-a-day fine for each late submission.
"That would make criminals out of our members," he said.
Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, said Florida has a long history of low-turnout elections and the Legislature should be trying to make it as easy as possible for people to vote, not erecting new barriers to voting.
Rep. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said it was unfair for such a complex piece of legislation to have surfaced less than 24 hours before a committee vote.
Of Florida's more than 11.2 million voters, Democrats account for 41 percent, Republicans 36 percent and the rest are independents or belong to minor parties.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.