WASHINGTON — Former Gov. Charlie Crist condemned Florida's election law before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, accusing the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott of bringing changes "designed to encourage a certain partisan outcome."
Crist, who registered as a Democrat last week and is a potential rival to Scott in 2014, spoke of "horrifying lines" voters endured and called for a reinstatement of early voting days that were cut before the election.
But a couple of hours before the hearing, Scott himself was calling for change, saying on CNN that supervisors of election need flexibility on the size of polling locations and that early voting could be expanded.
"We've got to go back and look at the number of days of early voting that we have," Scott said on Starting Point with Soledad O'Brien, who informed the governor of a new Qunnipiac poll out Wednesday showing his approval ratings remain low and he is vulnerable to a challenge.
As governor in 2008, Crist signed an executive order expanding early voting hours and was buffeted with criticism from fellow Republicans that he helped elect Barack Obama. Crist also won changes making it easier for felons to regain voting rights.
The Legislature in 2011 passed a bill that reduced early voting days from 14 to eight and made it harder for third-party groups to register prospective voters, among other things. The state also attempted to purge noncitizens from the voter rolls, which critics said intimidated eligible voters.
"The outcome of these decisions was obvious," Crist testified. "Florida, which four years earlier was a model of efficiency, became once again a late night TV joke."
He said confusion led to long lines and helped delay the results of the election. "Thankfully," he added, "the presidency didn't hang in the balance."
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa challenged Crist's assertions and noted that a federal judge in September refused to reverse Florida's planned cut in early voting days, which had been challenged by minority voter advocates and others.
The judge said there were "understandable concerns about how the change in the law might impact African-American voters" but concluded "the new law will not impermissibly burden the ability of African-Americans to vote."
Said Grassley: "It seems today that in any election or in any discussion of voting rights, the terms 'suppression' and 'disenfranchisement' are thrown about, sometimes in a cavalier fashion. That approach is not helpful to protecting voting rights."
Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson also spoke.
"We have just closed a very ugly chapter in Florida political history," he said.
Nelson introduced as evidence a deposition from Emmett "Bucky" Mitchell, an attorney for the Republican Party of Florida, who helped craft the 2011 law at the direction of party operatives.
"He's the same lawyer who is identified in separate testimony before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission as the person who created the 2000 purge list that led to thousands in Florida being erroneously identified as possible felons," Nelson said.
Under questioning from attorneys for voting rights groups earlier this year, Mitchell could not name an instance in which a Floridian had voted twice in an election or other fraud by voters who moved and attempted to update their address at a polling place and vote the same day.
Republicans noted that the reduction in early voting days — a focus of the controversy — was not part of the bill Mitchell drafted for the Florida House, that it was added after being sent to the Senate.
More broadly, Republicans said the 2012 general election provided the most statewide early voting hours of any election on record.
Crist, who lost a 2010 run for U.S. Senate to Marco Rubio, is still a widely recognized political figure and attracted attention from a half-dozen reporters Wednesday, mostly on his political plans.
He said he has not made up his mind about a 2014 run for governor but, clearly, one of the major lines he would press against Scott is the voting law.
"Voters who wanted to vote early were frequently subjected to lines of three and four hours — and as Gov. Scott refused to take action to ease the lines, in some cases those lines extended to six and seven hours," Crist testified.
The state has begun a review of the election, including a tour of key counties by Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner. In those meetings, officials have generally advocated for reversing provisions of the 2011 law.
Rubio, in an interview, said he would wait for that review to end before weighing in on possible changes to the 2011 law.
But, he added, "elections should be open and fair and no way tilted to lead to one result versus another. If there are changes to state law that need to happen to ensure that, then we would be supportive of that."
Times staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.