TAMPA — Election experts and Democratic voting advocates told U.S. senators Friday that a Republican-backed overhaul of Florida election laws will suppress Democratic turnout in the nation's biggest battleground state next fall.
Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida and Dick Durbin of Illinois held a field hearing at the Hillsborough County Courthouse that drew a racially diverse crowd that at times resembled an orchestrated Democratic rally. In packed pews in a sixth-floor courtroom, people wore yellow stickers that read "Our voice, our vote" and hissed at a witness who defended the law.
Testimony centered on the most controversial changes: reducing early voting from 14 days to eight, from 96 hours to a minimum of 48, and ending it on the Saturday before the election; requiring third-party groups to register and face fines if they turn in voter registration forms after 48 hours; and requiring voters who moved from another county since they last voted to cast provisional ballots if they have not updated their addresses.
Nearly 200 people attended the hearing and about 200 more watched on TV in a nearby room. The crowd erupted into loud applause when Durbin said: "There are people literally fighting and dying for the right to vote in countries like Syria, and we are finding ways to restrict the right to vote?"
As the two-hour forum ended, Nelson said: "The rule of law has been assaulted in this state by this election law under the pretense of cutting down on election fraud."
Two election supervisors, both Republicans, gave sharply contrasting views of the law.
Ann McFall of Volusia County criticized the law for not allowing more variety in early voting sites such as churches. And she complained of being forced to "turn in" friends and neighbors for turning in voter registration forms after the required 48 hours, including New Smyrna Beach teacher Jill Cicciarelli, who got a warning letter from the state.
"This is a bad law," said McFall, who predicted students at historically black Bethune Cookman College in Daytona Beach would be caught by the provisional ballot rule because of its traditionally high number of address changes on Election Day.
Mike Ertel of Seminole County defended the law, saying it is "vital" to require provisional ballots for voters who move across county lines to ensure that they vote once. He accused critics of the bill of "fear-mongering." Observers seated behind him hissed as he defended the law.
University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith testified that only two counties are offering the maximum 96 hours of early voting in advance of next week's presidential primary. He said the risk of fines will scare volunteers, making them less willing to work on voter registration drives.
Leaders of the National Bar Association, a black lawyers' group, and the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Hispanic advocacy group, said the law makes it harder for minority voters to register to vote.
Sarah Pemberton, a St. Petersburg College student and president of a statewide student government association, said fewer early voting days is bad for students, who lead "hectic" lives juggling school and work.
Not mentioned at the hearing was that Florida has made it easier for voters to cast absentee ballots by mail as an alternative to early voting or visiting the polls on Election Day. But UF's Smith said the highest likelihood of fraud involves absentee ballots.
Hillsborough, the hearing site, is one of five "pre-clearance" counties in which changes to voting laws must be approved by a federal panel of judges before they can take effect.
The hearing had a partisan tone from the outset. No Republican senators attended, and both senators asked witnesses leading questions.
Gov. Rick Scott, who signed House Bill 1355 into law last May, was invited to testify but declined to appear, and when Durbin voiced disappointment at Scott's absence, people in the audience laughed.
For Nelson, who's facing a challenging re-election fight, voter turnout isn't an academic subject: It's critical to him winning a third term, and blasting an election law written by Republicans motivates the Democratic base.
Republicans have consistently defended the changes as necessary to maintain integrity in the elections process and reduce fraud, even though there has been scant evidence of fraud in recent years, according to the Department of State.
"Today Bill Nelson and his liberal crony, Dick Durbin, are in Florida to tell us common sense laws that protect our system of democracy from fraud are a bad thing," Republican Party of Florida chairman Lenny Curry said. "Florida's new law represents a reasonable check and balance that invites maximum participation and ensures every Floridian who has the right to vote can do so with confidence in the process."
McFall said Florida's electronic voter registration system works well by assigning every voter a unique identifier from their Social Security number or driver's license number. "There's not fraud in the voter registration process," she said.
Earlier Friday, the leaders of several statewide advocacy groups held a news conference at the courthouse to complain about the law.
"This is a voting rights crisis we have in Florida," said Howard Simon, executive director of the state's ACLU chapter.
Rev. Charles Mckenzie, state coordinator for the Rainbow Push Coalition, called the law "the most egregious assault on voting rights since the civil rights movement."
Times staff writer Patty Ryan contributed to this report.
Key provisions of Florida's new election law
. Early voting is reduced from 14 days to eight and is not allowed on the Sunday before the election
. Third-party groups that register voters must register with the state and face fines if forms are not submitted within 48 hours
. Voters who have moved from another county since they last voted and who have not updated their address for voting purposes must cast provisional ballots