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Gov. Rick Scott signs controversial election bill into law

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday signed a controversial overhaul of the election laws that Republicans say is needed to prevent voter fraud and Democrats call a cynical act of partisanship to improve GOP chances in Florida next year.

Scott signed the bill without comment. Critics of the legislation assailed him for endorsing "voter suppression" tactics aimed at making it tougher for President Barack Obama to capture Florida's prized 29 electoral votes in 2012.

"I want people to vote, but I also want to make sure there's no fraud involved in elections," Scott said earlier. "All of us as individuals that vote want to make sure that our elections are fair and honest."

But some supervisors who run elections in Florida say the state's voter registration database is highly reliable. A statement from their statewide association warns Scott that the changes could cause chaos and confusion at the polls next year.

The League of Women Voters says it will suspend voter-registration activity in Florida because the bill requires such groups' volunteers to register with the state and face fines of up to $1,000 for not submitting voting forms within 48 hours.

The bill also cuts days of early voting from 15 to eight and requires some voters who have moved to cast provisional ballots, a change most likely to affect college students.

The bill wipes out policy in place for four decades in Florida that allowed voters to update their legal addresses when they voted. Republicans call that an invitation to fraud, so the new law allows only voters who have moved within the same county to update their addresses at the polls.

None of the bill's most controversial provisions was pushed by Scott's chief elections expert, Secretary of State Kurt Browning. He broke weeks of silence Thursday about an hour after his boss, Scott, signed the legislation.

"I know bad election law when I see it," Browning said. "I don't think this bill is bad for Florida. … It doesn't negatively impact Florida voters."

The law takes effect immediately, which means its first test will be in Miami-Dade, the state's largest county, which is electing a new county mayor and other officials Tuesday. Supervisor of Elections Lester Sola will end early voting Saturday — three days before Election Day, as the new law requires — a decision candidate Marcelo Llorente is fighting in court.

In five counties, it won't go into effect until the federal government approves. Any change in state election laws that affects Hillsborough, Collier, Monroe, Hendry or Hardee counties requires approval by the Justice Department because of past voting rights problems.

The election legislation generated far more public opposition than any other bill of the 2011 session. Some was engineered by the League of Women Voters, which has thousands of members in Florida.

Scott's office reported 14,000 calls and e-mails in opposition to the bill and nearly 1,300 in favor. A notation by Scott's staff said: "Majority oppose. Urging Governor to veto these bills because they change our voting laws, making it more difficult for some voters to cast their vote."

Democrats, labor unions and voter advocacy groups have been up in arms for weeks, saying the bill was designed to stifle turnout in Florida next year, especially among students. Democrats in Congress have asked the U.S. Justice Department to block the bill from taking effect.

Early voting was widely credited as a factor in Obama's Florida victory in 2008. While the bill reduces early voting from 15 days to eight, it still allows for up to 96 total hours of early voting. That means election supervisors can run early voting sites for up to 12 hours a day. Their pleas for more early voting sites, however, were ignored by the Legislature, and as a result, some supervisors predict longer lines than ever next year.

"(This) could result in crowding and confusion at early voting sites," the association of election supervisors said in a memorandum to lawmakers.

Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark said the longer early voting days would be more convenient for people who want to vote before or after work. She also said she would make sure her office would quickly retrieve voter registration forms from third-party groups so they would avoid being fined.

In highly mobile metropolitan Orlando, where Democratic voter registration is surging, Orange County Supervisor of Election Bill Cowles fears havoc next year because thousands of voters typically seek to vote after moving into his county from surrounding areas.

In 2008, Cowles said, about 8,000 county voters updated their addresses on Election Day and about 3,000 of them had moved to Orange from another county. Under the new law, those county-to-county voters will be restricted to casting provisional ballots.

"The average voter is not paying attention, and they will not pay attention until they're hit with this on Election Day," Cowles said. "Especially if they are one of the voters who moved from one county to the next."

Cowles also said fears of voter fraud are unfounded because Florida has a highly accurate and reliable state-run voter registration database. Every voter has a unique identifying number and a voter must show a photo ID before being given a ballot.

During debate over the election law at the Capitol, Cowles said of the database: "Never once did I hear the Legislature refer to this tool the state owns."

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who's up for re-election next year, and Florida's six Democrats in Congress sent the Justice Department a letter calling the new law "a clear violation of the Voting Rights Act."

The elections bill, HB 1355, passed the Legislature with overwhelming Republican support. Republican Sens. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey and Paula Dockery of Lakeland voted no. Fasano said Scott made the wrong decision.

"Florida has always been a state that has been open in having access to voting for legal residents. In fact, we brag about that," Fasano said. "This bill reduces that access."

Times/Herald staff writers Alex Leary, Patricia Mazzei and Janet Zink and Miami Herald staff writer Laura Figueroa contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com.

.FAST FACTS

Key changes to Florida's election laws

. Early voting drops from 15 days to eight days; total number of early voting hours stays at 96; no additional early voting sites.

. Voters who have moved since the last election can only update their status at the polls if they have moved within the same county. All others must cast provisional ballots.

. Third-party groups that register new voters must submit forms within 48 hours or face fines of up to $1,000.

. A nine-member panel will choose the date of Florida's 2012 presidential preference primary.

. 2012 primary election will be Aug. 14, two weeks earlier than usual.

Gov. Rick Scott signs controversial election bill into law 05/19/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 19, 2011 10:41pm]

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