In another sign of the national implications of Florida's new voting laws, the Rev. Jesse Jackson is holding rallies in Tampa and Orlando next week to criticize changes approved by the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott.
Jackson, president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, said the new law is aimed at making it harder for people to vote in Florida. The civil rights leader called on the Justice Department to block implementation of the law by refusing to grant "preclearance" in Hillsborough and four other counties, a process required by the federal Voting Rights Act.
"I think Florida may be ground zero for the voter suppression movement," Jackson said in a conference call Friday with Florida reporters.
Jackson criticized provisions of the law that have been strongly attacked by many Democrats.
They include reducing early voting from 14 days to eight and excluding the Sunday before the general election; imposing fines on third-party groups that register voters if they do not submit applications within 48 hours; and requiring voters who change counties to cast provisional ballots if they haven't updated their voting addresses.
For four decades, voters in Florida were allowed to update their addresses on Election Day. Only voters who have moved within the same county will be allowed to do that in 2012.
Jackson said that change is particularly unfair to college students, who move frequently.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has filed a legal challenge to the law, and Scott's attorneys have asked a U.S. District Court to dismiss the governor as a defendant.
Florida, with its 29 electoral votes, is considered a crucial swing state in 2012 to the re-election prospects of President Barack Obama, who carried the state in 2008. In that race, former Gov. Charlie Crist extended the hours of early voting, an act that was widely viewed as helpful to Obama.
Scott received more citizen opposition to the election bill than any other that passed in the spring lawmaking session.
The new law is currently undergoing review by Justice Department lawyers, and a decision is expected by Aug. 8. Opponents have asked the federal government to reject the law, arguing that it would harm the voting rights of racial and ethnic minorities.
Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who championed the law in the House, said during the 2011 legislative session that the changes were necessary to preserve the integrity of the voting system in Florida and to make fraud more difficult. He gave as an example a voter trying to cast more than one ballot in the same election. That view was echoed by Scott when he signed the bill into law May 19.
County election supervisors, who oversee the casting of ballots, say Florida's voter registration database is highly reliable, and they have warned that the changes could cause chaos and confusion at the polls next year.
Jackson's three "voter empowerment rallies" will be held in churches in the I-4 corridor, an area traditionally seen as pivotal in any statewide election.
The rallies are at 9 a.m. Monday at Life Center Church in Orlando; 7:30 p.m. Monday at New Covenant Baptist Church in Orlando; and 2 p.m. Tuesday at the 34th Street Church of God in Tampa.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.