No state has a right to make a law, or to enforce an old statute, if it abridges basic rights of people in whom the Constitution vests power.
How, then, can the Florida Legislature reasonably justify a measure now at hand — one that absolutely would make it harder for a substantial number of citizens to vote?
Current law allows early voting for a 14-day period in advance of an election. That would be shortened to just six days.
And while a few days less in which to vote may seem like a trivial difference, consider that about one-third of all votes in Florida were cast during early voting in the 2008 presidential election year. Early voting is convenient for voters, especially in a state like Florida with a large population of seniors who may not want, or be able, to wait in long lines on Election Day.
Current law also allows registered voters, such as college students or newlyweds with a name or address change, to cast a ballot. But this new legislation would force these voters to cast so-called provisional ballots. This would create an administrative nightmare for the local supervisor of elections, who must look at each provisional ballot individually. In 2008, about half of the provisional ballots in our state ended up not counting toward the final results.
At one time in our country, women and African-Americans didn't have the basic right to vote. After being arrested for casting an illegal vote in the presidential election of 1872, Susan B. Anthony called it "a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty, while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them … the ballot."
Some might say this new legislation is a downright mockery, too, that almost 140 years after her arrest we still have elected representatives looking for ways to constrict access to the ballot box.
The proposal we're talking about would even penalize groups that help register new voters.
Any group or organization that conducts a registration drive — the League of Women Voters, for example — would have only two days to return registration cards to the supervisor of elections. If it doesn't do so within the two days, it could be fined up to $1,000. And the volunteers could be fined if mistakes are made in voter applications.
Shortening the time frame and threatening volunteers with a fine for mistakes is wrong. Most volunteers are helping people become registered voters.
I happen to believe that in a democracy we should be making it easier for people to vote, not harder, and not restricting anyone's right to vote.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once warned that "all types of conniving methods" can be used to keep people from becoming registered voters. "The denial of this sacred right," he said, "is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic traditions, and it is democracy turned upside down."
It's true that our own country's path to democracy hasn't been without struggles. Minorities and women fought for years to have equal rights, including voting privileges.
Why would anyone now take aim at a means for making voting more convenient and easier for all?
So, let me ask of all members of the Florida Legislature — look beyond yourselves, beyond any partisan political differences, to every citizen in Florida.
Give them every means to exercise the power our Constitution says belongs to them.
Bill Nelson is Florida's senior U.S. senator.