TALLAHASSEE — Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson blasted state Republican lawmakers Monday for an election law overhaul that he says will block college students and military personnel from having their votes counted next year when he and President Barack Obama both seek re-election.
Then Nelson waded into a controversy of his own when he suggested the U.S. special forces that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden could be blocked from voting if the Legislature passes the bill.
"Should we deny those very military that carried out this very successful decapitating of the al-Qaida snake?" Nelson asked at a Capitol news conference. "Should we deny them because they have signed their voter registration card in a different way than they signed their absentee ballot overseas?"
Republicans pounced on Nelson, with several releasing critical statements.
Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami, the House majority leader, accused Nelson of an "outrageous political stunt."
"His disgraceful suggestion that the Florida Legislature would attempt to diminish the voting rights of American heroes is offensive and untruthful," Lopez-Cantera said.
The target of Nelson's wrath are bills awaiting floor votes in the last few days of the session. Under the proposed changes, voters could not update addresses at the polls unless they moved within their county, and third-party groups that don't turn in voter registration forms within 48 hours would face $50-a-day fines.
Republicans say their goal is an election system with more integrity. Democrats accuse Republicans of voter suppression to improve their chances of victory.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who is campaigning to be the Republican nominee against Nelson in 2012, is a strong supporter of lifting the 40-year-old law that allowed voters who have moved since the last election to update their address at the time they vote. Under the proposed change, those voters would cast provisional ballots.
"It's going to be an up-or-down vote, and I'm going to be voting for it," Haridopolos said. "If you're a voter, it's your responsibility to keep current as to what your address is."
Of Nelson's comments, Haridopolos, 41, said: "I just felt it was bush league from someone who has been in office since I was 2 years old."
Joining Nelson, 69, were Florida Democratic Party chairman Rod Smith, former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich and other Democratic lawmakers, and Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho, who accused the Republican-controlled Legislature of playing politics.
Asked if he felt the election-law changes were an attack on him personally, Nelson said, "This is a personal attack on the people of Florida."
A spokesman for Secretary of State Kurt Browning said that between January 2008 and March 2011 in Florida, there were 31 cases of alleged voter fraud referred to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for investigation. Only three resulted in arrests.
The Senate bill, SB 2086, also would move up the date of next year's primary to Aug. 14, two weeks before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, and it would create a special commission to pick the date of Florida's next presidential primary. It would not make any changes to early voting.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.