Not surprisingly, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law on Thursday pernicious election changes designed to benefit Republicans and suppress voting by minorities, college students and low-wage workers. It is a blatant partisan effort to make it harder to register to vote and cast ballots, and it is up to the U.S. Department of Justice and the courts to stand up to this assault on democracy.
By shortening early voting from two weeks to eight days, the new law makes it harder for low-income working people who don't have flexible hours to vote. And early voting is barred three days before Election Day, ensuring that the weekend before the election, when casual voters are most engaged and most able to vote, there will be no opportunity. Republicans took aim at Florida's popular early voting process because it has favored Democrats and was utilized by African-Americans in 2008 as Barack Obama won Florida and the presidency. The other form of early voting, absentee ballots, which heavily favors Republicans, was untouched by the new law.
In another craven move by Republicans, voters who change their residences a lot such as renters, college students and the poor will now to be handed provisional ballots at the polls, which may or may not be counted. For the last 40 years, Floridians who moved out of the county of their registration had the convenience of changing their address at the polls, and with the state's new voter database, there's no chance of someone voting twice. But the rules were tightened to disadvantage Democratic voters.
The new law also suppresses voting by threatening groups that conduct voter registration drives. Groups will now face steep fines if they don't get new registrations submitted within 48 hours rather than 10 days. They also must register with the state, listing all volunteers who will be registering voters. And those volunteers must individually swear to uphold election laws. The paperwork is designed to be an administrative nightmare for organizations that utilize hundreds of volunteers with few resources. No wonder the League of Women Voters says it will suspend its voter registration efforts in Florida because of the new law.
Republicans claim that the changes are necessary to address voter fraud. That's a laughable contention, dispelled by the Florida Department of State, which reports that only 31 cases were referred to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for investigation between January 2008 and March 2011. There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Florida. Besides, voting by absentee ballot is most the susceptible to fraud, since no one sees whether the named voter is the one who fills out his ballot. Yet Republicans had no interest in putting new safeguards on absentee voting.
It's no shock that Scott failed to stand up to Republican legislators and veto this assault on the constitutional right to vote. It is disappointing that Secretary of State Kurt Browning, the former Pasco elections supervisor once known for his integrity and independence, is sacrificing his own reputation to defend the indefensible for his new boss. Republican legislators have succeeded in their unrepentant effort to make it harder for their most likely political opponents to vote. The Justice Department and the courts should not let them get away with it.