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Critics say Florida Senate bill could disenfranchise voters

TALLAHASSEE — A sweeping overhaul of Florida election laws is gaining momentum in the Legislature over strong opposition from opponents who say it would disenfranchise voters and weaken the process for ballot initiative.

The leading advocate of the changes is Senate Majority Leader Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, who calls it a "voter protection bill." Voting groups and Democratic senators say it would depress turnout, erect new burdens to voter registration drives, expand the use of provisional ballots and heighten the influence of special-interest money in elections.

A different House version is expected to be made public Monday.

Among other things, the Senate bill would:

• Ban two forms of ID now allowed at the polls: retirement center and neighborhood association ID cards.

• Require voters who have moved to cast provisional ballots on Election Day. (They now can update their address at the polls when they vote.)

• Require groups that conduct voter registration drives to turn in signed voter applications within 48 hours.

• Allow legislators to form so-called leadership funds, which the Legislature outlawed in the mid 1990s as a fund-raising abuse.

• Allow political committees formed in other states, some of which have far weaker public disclosure laws, to be active in Florida without complying with Florida disclosure laws.

• Reduce from four years to two the life span of initiative petitions signed by voters.

The far-reaching, 72-page Republican-sponsored rewrite (SB 956) surfaced in the seventh week of a nine-week session and was heard for the first time Thursday, passing the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee 5-3 over Democratic objections.

"All and all, this bill is bad public policy, " said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston.

Diaz de la Portilla said only government-issued IDs should be allowed to reduce potential for voter fraud. A spokeswoman for a voter advocacy group, the Advancement Project, said the Miami lawmaker would disenfranchise thousands of elderly voters in Little Havana.

"We're throwing up a lot of obstacles here," said Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, who criticized a mandatory registration program for people paid to circulate petitions for ballot initiatives, another new provision.

Dale Landry of the Florida NAACP said the bill would "destroy the Constitution."

Sandy Wayland of the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition criticized the very first line of the bill, which gives the state total authority for enforcement of all election laws, which she said would weaken the ability of county election supervisors to do their job.

Other opponents included the League of Women Voters, Florida Public Interest Research Group, ACLU of Florida and the AFL-CIO, which called the bill "the final slice to the jugular vein" of the ballot initiative process. Most speakers were allowed one minute to testify on the bill, a decision speakers said underscored how the changes are being rushed through.

The bill would ban solicitation of voters within 100 feet of the end of any line of voters at a precinct, rather than 100 feet from the polling place's entrance.

The bill also would prohibit giving legal advice to voters within 100 feet of a polling place. Thousands of attorneys working on behalf of Barack Obama staffed Florida precincts last November to assist voters in an effort to head off cases in which any voter's eligibility was questioned.

Diaz de la Portilla said the change was needed to reduce harassment and intimidation of voters, especially in South Florida, but he did not cite any specific incidents.

Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles in Orlando testified that he and his colleagues do receive many complaints about voters who are solicited at the polls.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Critics say Florida Senate bill could disenfranchise voters 04/16/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 16, 2009 6:34pm]
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