TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House passed a sweeping overhaul of election laws Thursday that Republicans say will streamline voting machinery and Democrats say will make it harder for people to vote in the nation's biggest battleground state in 2012.
Passage on a 79-37 party-line vote followed two days of intensely partisan debate — a harbinger of next year's presidential election when Florida's newly increased 29 electoral votes and all 160 legislative seats will be at stake in a pivotal reapportionment year.
But the closest that any Republican lawmaker came to stating the obvious — invoking President Barack Obama's name — was a passing reference to preventing "the Chicago method" of voting more than once.
In another sign of the muscle-flexing power of Republican supermajorities in both houses, the GOP is making changes to voting laws for the next election, and the vastly outnumbered Democrats are powerless to stop it.
"This is a great country. Our vote is precious, and we're going to protect it," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, sponsor of the bill, HB 1355.
Neither Florida's election supervisors nor the secretary of state requested the most controversial changes, which are among the most hotly debated since the aftermath of the 2000 presidential recount.
The House bill eliminates a four-decade-old provision that allows voters who have moved to update their legal addresses at the polls on Election Day. Unless those voters have moved within their home county, they must file provisional ballots that are reviewed after the election.
Republicans said the change is needed to prevent people from voting twice, but Democrats say there's no evidence of voter fraud and the change will hurt mobile college students and military personnel the most.
"This is a bad elections bill. It sets bad precedent and sets bad policy," said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. "We are fixing something that doesn't need to be fixed."
Republicans scoffed at the notion.
"If that college student or the woman who has changed her name shows up, they can vote and their vote will be a provisional ballot, and the canvassing board will have to determine if it's a valid one," said Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland. "We haven't inconvenienced the voter in any way, shape or form."
The bill requires third-party groups such as the League of Women Voters to register with the state and to turn in signed voter registration forms within 48 hours instead of the current 10 days. Critics such as the league's Ben Wilcox call that change criminalizing volunteer voter registration drives.
African-American legislators such as Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, likened the bill to the era before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when blacks were required to pass literacy tests or pay a poll tax before they could cast a ballot. She said it would disenfranchise "people of color, women and youth."
The bill also reduces from four years to two the validity of voters' signatures on initiative petitions seeking to amend the state Constitution.
The measure moves up the date of next year's statewide primary election to Aug. 14, or 12 weeks before the general election, while the competing Senate version pushes the primary date back to the day after the three-day Labor Day weekend. The Senate version, SB 2086, will be considered by the Senate Budget Committee next week.
Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando, claimed an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found that students were registered to vote without their knowledge and that "Mickey Mouse was registered to vote."
Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who has served under two Republican governors, has repeatedly said Florida's state-of-the-art electronic voter database that requires a four-digit unique numerical match for every voter has virtually eliminated fraud. In 2009, Browning's office said state voter registration laws ensure that only eligible people can vote.
The House bill maintains 14 days of early voting that the Senate bill cuts to seven, but Republicans turned back Democratic attempts to expand the types of buildings that can be used as a convenience to voters.
Only election offices and branch offices, city halls and public libraries can be used for early voting. Some elections supervisors are bracing themselves for the kind of long lines that prompted then-Gov. Charlie Crist to extend early voting in 2008.
Democrats said Republicans should be ashamed of themselves.
"President Lincoln would not recognize this party any more," said Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-North Miami Beach.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.