The U.S. Constitution guarantees Americans the right to vote. But a recent analysis by a voting rights group serves as a sharp reminder that Florida still doesn't live up to that promise. Recent changes in voter registration laws, approved under the guise of preventing fraud, left thousands of would-be voters disenfranchised in the 2008 presidential election. That is an inexcusable shame, and one that Florida lawmakers need to address before the 2010 midterm elections.
The report by the Advancement Project, "Barriers to the Ballot: 2008 Ballot and Beyond," highlights the various ways Florida's Republican-led Legislature has made it more difficult for citizens — particularly members of some minority groups — to participate in elections in the wake of the 2000 recount debacle. Newly implemented voter registration requirements appear to have prevented thousands from registering. That ultimately contributed to Florida rejecting a higher percentage of provisional ballots — the fallback plan endorsed by Congress when there is a question about a voter's qualification.
Florida's "No Match, No Vote" law denies voter registration to any applicant whose registration form doesn't match either the Social Security or Florida's driver's license databases. Sometimes it's a bureaucratic error that causes the problem. Sometimes voters transpose a number or list a nickname. But last year, results showed the stringent requirement disproportionately impacted Hispanics and African-Americans seeking to register in Florida. Unless they took the time and effort to follow up after being notified of the problem, they couldn't vote or else cast a provisional ballot that was later rejected.
Some local elections supervisors admirably ignored the advice of the state during the 2008 election and allowed voters to straighten out registration errors at the polls. Yet Florida still rejected a higher share of provisional ballots cast that day — 56 percent — than most states because of questions about registration, the report said.
Other issues the report cited that discouraged voting: Some counties, including Pinellas, offered only the minimum required in early voting sites; voters must bring identification to the polls; state laws discourage third-party groups from registering voters; and Florida has one of the earliest voter registration deadlines.
Florida's law should err on the side of including as many voters as possible, not excluding them due to technical glitches. The Legislature needs to revisit No Match, No Vote to make sure that citizens have every chance to correct errors and participate at the polls. It should require more early voting sites in every county. And it should implement a later registration deadline. Every vote should count in a democracy.