If the point of elections laws is to make voting as convenient as possible, Florida has missed it. The state has just been named by three voting rights advocacy groups as "the most hostile state in the nation to new voters." The cumulative effect of some recently passed election laws has made voter registration drives more fraught with pitfalls and registering to vote more difficult.
State law requires residents register to vote at least 29 days before an election. Some other states, such as Connecticut, Maine and Minnesota, allow citizens to register and vote on the same day. Florida's long lead time means that a voter has to plan well ahead in order to exercise his or her franchise.
On top of that, Florida's "no match-no vote" law was upheld by a federal appellate court earlier this month. The law says that where Social Security or driver's license information does not perfectly match what is on a voter registration application, the registration is to be considered invalid. A citizen registering as "Bill," for example, could be barred from voting if his Social Security number is issued under "William."
To exacerbate the problem, a federal court in Miami recently upheld another provision of law that makes it impossible for people to correct their registration forms after the registration window has closed. States such as Washington and North Carolina are far more generous when mistakes occur and allow corrections after the registration deadline. In Florida, it's one strike and you're out.
There is one bright spot. Secretary of State Kurt Browning is far less partisan than some of his predecessors and more even-handed. Despite the recent court ruling, Browning says he will wait until all legal issues are resolved before enforcing the "no match-no vote'' rules. This sensible step will save the resources of Florida's county supervisors of elections and reduce confusion until there is clarity from the courts.
In the meantime, the Legislature should reconsider this rigid verification law. While in effect, the law kept more than 14,000 Floridians off the voter rolls. Some 65 percent of those voters were African-American or Hispanic, leading to further questions about whether the Republican-controlled Legislature's intent was to hold fair elections or tamp down minority votes.
On voter registration, the state has still not struck the right balance between encouraging registration drives and preventing fraud. Current law is better than what existed in 2006, when fines were so high for any mistake that the League of Women Voters actually stopped their registration efforts in the state for the first time in 67 years. Today, fines are $1,000 per group if completed registrations are not submitted to the state within 10 days.
The state needs leadership on these issues that go beyond party politics. Gov. Charlie Crist has shown some great courage by pushing for automatic civil rights restoration for certain categories of ex-felons. But Florida should be looking for every opportunity to encourage participation in elections, not to throw up unnecessary roadblocks.