Thursday, January 18, 2018
Politics

Battlegrounds for voting laws besides Florida: Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado

Strict new photo ID laws for Wisconsin and Pennsylvania voters. Limits on early voting in Ohio. A purge of suspected noncitizens in Colorado. Self-appointed "watchdog" groups trying to strip voters from the rolls.

In state after state, the presidential campaign of 2012 is being punctuated by hyperpartisan debate over new voting laws that were championed by Republicans to prevent fraud, but which Democrats criticize as a scheme to suppress voter turnout.

Florida remains ground zero in this nationwide battle over ballot box access, as it has since 2000, when a presidential recount decided by 537 votes led to a withering self-appraisal of how the state runs elections.

Throughout 2012, Florida has been constantly in court, defending its search for suspected noncitizen voters or its decisions to cut early voting days or expand the use of provisional ballots — changes championed by Republicans in a state crucial to the hopes of GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

"Baloney," says Lenny Curry, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, rejecting the idea that the GOP is gaming the system to benefit itself.

Curry says that Republicans started early voting in Florida, that it is growing in popularity, and that with eight days of early voting before Nov. 6, people have sufficient opportunity to vote.

"It's a talking point that they have," Curry says of Democrats. "It's garbage. It's nonsense."

Republicans in Ohio also have cut the number of early voting days and ended early voting on the weekend before Election Day, which prevents pastors at black churches from rallying their Democratic flocks to vote after they pray.

"The only time early voting is shut off in Ohio is the Friday night before the election," says Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a Republican, who argues that the state offers many opportunities for people to vote.

Across the country, Democrats say it's no coincidence that the states with the most intense battles over voting laws are key battleground states led by Republicans, such as Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio.

It has spawned a campaign-within-a-campaign, as both sides increasingly use the media, the courts and overheated rhetoric to mobilize voters. In many places, the mechanics of voting is as polarizing an issue as the campaign itself.

"I've never seen anything like this, with regard to the level and ferocity of the fights about voter ID, noncitizen voting, and early voting,'' says Doug Chapin, an elections expert at the University of Minnesota. "And this year it feels meaner, in a way I don't recall before."

Chapin says both sides' claims are excessive: He says Democrats are not trying to make illegal voters cast ballots, and Republicans are not trying to suppress voting. He attributes the extreme rhetoric on both sides to the growing hyperpartisanship in America.

Republican claims of voter fraud do appear overblown.

The U.S. Justice Department says incidents of voter fraud are rare. In Florida alone, 42 of 57 voter fraud claims filed by citizens this year have been dismissed as legally insufficient, and only nine complaints have been deemed worthy of review. Charges were filed in one case, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said.

Two people in Miami-Dade have been charged with illegally influencing how people vote in a widening absentee ballot fraud investigation.

In state after state, advocacy groups such as the Advancement Project and the Brennan Center for Justice have filed lawsuits to challenge new laws they say will impose new barriers to voting.

"I would say that nationwide, we have seen a trend of voting laws that are designed to and have the effect of making it harder to vote and we know that affects some communities more than others," said Diana Kasdan, legal counsel for the Brennan Center at the New York University School of Law.

Florida will be back in a courtroom today as a coalition of voter advocacy groups seeks to block the state's latest effort to remove suspected noncitizen voters from the rolls.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two U.S. citizens in Tampa, Pamela Gomez, a Hispanic, and Murat Limage, a Haitian-American. They were suspected by the state of illegally registering to vote based on outdated state driver's license information, the lawsuit alleges.

Their attorney, Robert Kengle of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said it's wrong for Florida to require people to re-verify their citizenship to vote, and it's troubling that minority voters are far more likely to be swept up in the hunt for ineligible Florida voters.

"If you look at the numbers, it's wildly disproportionate, in terms of sweeping in minority voters," Kengle said. "That in and of itself leads you to question, 'Why is this being done?' "

From first lady Michelle Obama to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Democrats have hammered home the theme that Republicans are making it harder for people to vote.

"It's un-American. It's just wrong," Buckhorn says, citing Florida's decision to curtail the early voting period from 14 to eight days (the maximum hours of early voting will be 96 hours in many, but not all counties).

In a fiery speech at the Democratic convention last month, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights pioneer, brought the crowd to its feet by accusing Republicans of "trying to stop some people from voting."

"They're changing the rules," Lewis thundered as he listed a half-dozen suspect states, including Florida.

University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith has warned that the expanded use of provisional ballots in Florida and other states could cause "a complete meltdown" on Election Day.

Smith said provisional ballots could expand tenfold, because Florida now requires people to vote provisionally if they have moved from another county and have not updated their voting addresses (except active military personnel).

"It's going to affect a lot of low-frequency voters, who are generally younger and more transient, and at the top of that list are college kids," Smith said. "A lot of ballots are going to be tossed out."

In previous years, Florida voters could update their addresses at the polls and cast a regular ballot. But Republicans changed the law last year.

"You want to see chaos in Florida?" There it is," said Michael McDonald, an elections expert at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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