TALLAHASSEE — Even though Election Day last year went relatively smoothly across Florida, a civil rights advocacy group that focuses on elections warned that stricter voter registration laws could prevent thousands of eligible voters from joining the rolls in upcoming elections.
A report released Thursday by the Advancement Project also calls for expanded early voting to prevent the long lines many voters faced last year when they cast ballots before Election Day.
"Given that the margin was so overwhelming in favor of President Obama, it tends to mask some of the problems that still exist," said Elizabeth Westfall, the director of Advancement Project's voter protection program.
Besides the 2010 midterms, the next test of Florida's voting system will be in local elections this spring, such as several city elections across Pinellas County in March and Pasco County in April.
The Advancement Project, which works to increase voter participation among poor people and minorities, has teamed with the NAACP to challenge Florida's voter verification law in court. The law requires driver's license or Social Security numbers on registration applications to match state databases.
If the numbers or names don't match, applicants can verify their identities by presenting their licenses or other documents to local elections officials. People can verify their information before election day or cast a provisional ballot that would be counted if they clear up ambiguities up to two days afterward.
The advocacy group successfully blocked implementation of the law in 2007, adding 16,000 voters to the rolls. Last year, the law prevented 11,000 applicants from becoming registered voters. Another court challenge is scheduled for late January.
But Secretary of State Kurt Browning's office argues the state's registration laws ensure only eligible people can vote.
"We believe the law worked as it is supposed to," said Browning spokeswoman Jennifer Davis. "We have each voter's correct information to protect the integrity of the rolls."
The Advancement Project also called for an expansion of early voting. Citing hours-long lines, especially in South Florida, the group said weekday voting hours should be extended and several counties should set up more polling places.
Early voters smashed records last November, accounting for 30 percent the total electorate.
Duval and Hillsborough counties each had more than a dozen early voting sites last year, but Pinellas offered only three, even though the county has a comparable number of registered voters.
Lee Logan can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected]