TALLAHASSEE — With Florida a crucial state in the 2012 presidential election, the state Legislature wants to overhaul election laws in ways critics say would help the Republican Party maintain its dominance.
The Senate is pushing a bill to cut early voting time by half, make it harder for grass roots groups to register voters and require people to vote provisionally if they moved since the last time they voted — a change elections supervisors say would affect college students the most. The bill, SB 2086, passed the Republican-controlled Rules Committee on Friday on a 10-2 vote.
Legislators say their goal is more convenient and less expensive voting machinery. But with President Barack Obama needing Florida's 29 electoral votes to win a second term, skeptics say the GOP-dominated Legislature is showing it has more than a passing interest in how the next election is run. All 160 legislative seats also will be up for grabs in 2012 because of reapportionment.
The 140-page Senate elections amendment was sponsored by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who chairs the Rules Committee and is the immediate past chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, defended the bill as voter-friendly, noting that it makes it easier for voters to request absentee ballots. But the proposed changes drew fire from election supervisors as well as the League of Women Voters, which successfully sued the state to block a previous round of restrictions on third-party voter registration efforts.
"We would hope to avoid going back to court," said Ben Wilcox of the League of Women Voters. "We believe that citizens should be active, engaged, and informed participants in democracy."
The bill also would push back the primary election by one week to Sept. 4, the day after the three-day Labor Day weekend holiday. Supporters said the change is needed so that the election won't conflict with the Republican National Convention in Tampa, scheduled the previous week. Moving the primary would allow fundraising to continue during the GOP convention.
The bill would force voters who do not go to the correct precincts to cast provisional ballots — which are only counted in some cases. Since 1973, Florida has allowed voters to update their address at a polling place.
Elections supervisors oppose a provision that allows Secretary of State Kurt Browning, an appointee of Gov. Rick Scott, to issue written orders to supervisors, who are elected constitutional officers.
But what drew the most heat Friday was the Senate's insistence that early voting be curtailed from two weeks to one. A surge in early voting was widely cited as a major factor in Obama's 2008 victory in Florida, and then-Gov. Charlie Crist extended early voting hours because of long lines at early voting centers.
"Generally, early voting in Miami-Dade County has not been very efficient," Diaz de la Portilla said. "What you see more often than not is that there is a trickle of two or three people a day at a very high cost to keep those public libraries and polls open. … We felt it was an efficiency measure."
Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Aventura, said the crush of early voters in the last presidential election showed that two weeks of early voting is not enough. She called the bill a "Machiavellian" act by Republicans.
"It will disenfranchise and really anger a lot of people who are standing in line," Margolis said. "I just think that it's a very, very bad thing to do."
Diaz de la Portilla called the criticism "offensive, unfair and I think it's plain wrong."
Margolis and Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, cast the only votes against the bill. A third Democrat, Sen. Gary Siplin of Orlando, voted yes. Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, voted yes, after criticizing the idea of moving the primary to the day after Labor Day, warning it will complicate planning by elections officials.
The state Division of Elections said nearly one of every five people who voted in the 2010 general election voted at an early voting site, about the same number as cast absentee ballots.
Friday's developments came a day after the House advanced its own controversial election bill, HB 1355, which also imposes new registration requirements and time limits on third-party voter registration drives that do not also apply to political parties.
The Florida Democratic Party said in a statement from executive director Scott Arceneaux the past two statewide elections have gone smoothly and there's no need for major changes.
"The only thing the Republicans are doing with this bill is trying to game the system to help Republicans," he said.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:About 1.3 million people cast absentee ballots in the November 2010 general election, about the same number as voted early. The year of the election and the comparison between absentee and early voters were incorrect in a story Saturday.