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With little discussion, Florida House council passes sweeping changes to voting rules

TALLAHASSEE — A House council hurriedly passed a sweeping rewrite of Florida election laws Friday, shutting down public comment after just two minutes and prompting an uproar from opponents.

Like a similar Senate version, the House bill would ban two forms of voter ID at the polls now used mainly by older voters and require paid ballot-initiative circulators to register with the state. It also would require people whose addresses changed in the month before an election to cast provisional ballots, prohibit anyone from interacting with voters in a floating 100-foot zone outside polling places and make it more difficult for third-party groups to register new voters.

The 81-page bill was debated Friday at an 8 a.m. meeting of the House Economic Development Council and passed on a 10-5 party-line vote.

The Senate version (SB 956) was heard for the first time Thursday, passing the Ethics and Elections Committee 5-3 over Democratic objections. Most speakers were allowed just one minute to testify on the bill.

No other committees in the House are slated to review the bills, so there's no chance for additional public testimony in the two weeks left in the session.

The bills would allow political committees registered in other states to be active in Florida without complying with the Sunshine State's campaign reporting requirements, which are stricter than other states'. Legislators would be allowed to create leadership funds to solicit large donations from special interests and lobbyists, and the bill repeals a 2008 law that allows senators and others who hold a four-year term to run for a federal office without resigning.

Absent from either bill is an expansion of early voting hours or locations. That was a major concern of election supervisors in the 2008 election. Gov. Charlie Crist signed an executive order expanding early voting hours, a factor that was cited as helpful to Barack Obama's victory in Florida.

Both bills would ban identification now allowed at the polls: retirement center and neighborhood association ID cards.

In the House on Friday, Rep. Jennifer Carroll, R-Green Cove Springs, suggested limiting debate to six minutes. When the committee chairman, Rep. Dave Murzin, R-Pensacola, allowed two people to make brief statements, Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Brooksville, insisted that no more testimony be allowed.

Asked later to explain his conduct, Schenck said: "It was just procedural. … This issue will be vetted very thoroughly on the (House) floor, and there will probably be hours of debate on it."

"This is a travesty," said Rep. Maria Sachs, D-Boca Raton.

Rep. Audrey Gibson, D?Jacksonville, said the bill "is an attempt at suppressing Democratic voter turnout because they turned out in record numbers" in 2008.

Components of the bill were discussed only fleetingly, such as a proposal that would prohibit any "person, political committee … or other group or organization" from interacting with voters waiting in line to vote.

When Rep. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, asked the bill's sponsor if people would be prevented from dispensing water to voters standing in line in the heat, Rep. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, said she didn't know.

"I think it was unconscionable," said Rich Templin of the Florida AFL-CIO, one of those not allowed to testify. Murzin told him to submit written testimony instead.

In a statement, the labor group and five other organizations called the House's action "an insult to the hundreds of thousands of Floridians our organizations collectively represent. We are firmly convinced that this legislation will fundamentally alter Florida's most basic democratic institutions and disenfranchise millions of our state's voters." They said a hurried vote, without public debate, "represents the height of arrogance by some of our legislative leaders."

The House Democratic leader, Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Weston, took the floor on a point of personal privilege to condemn the council's action. He said the bill's contents were not made public until late Thursday night while lawmakers were debating the budget. Sands asked that the bill be returned to the same committee for more study and testimony.

"This morning's deliberations failed to meet the Legislature's promise of open and fair government," Sands said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com.

With little discussion, Florida House council passes sweeping changes to voting rules 04/17/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 20, 2009 11:04am]
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