With the 2012 presidential election around the corner and all 160 seats in the Legislature on the ballot due to redistricting, state lawmakers should make it easier for Floridians to register to vote and cast ballots. Yet the Republican-controlled Legislature would make it harder, and the result would be to suppress the vote in ways that would favor Republicans. The House passed its antidemocracy bill Thursday along partisan lines, and the Senate is poised to approve similar legislation. With two weeks left in the session, the best hope is that these cynical efforts to infringe on voters' rights collapse under their own weight.
The two behemoth bills, HB 1355 and SB 2086, are each more than 100 pages long. Republicans say the changes would address voter fraud, but there is no voter fraud problem in Florida. Take a look at the bills' opponents: Democratic lawmakers, good-government groups, grass roots advocates, unions and even elections supervisors. The legislation is intended to discourage voter turnout when President Barack Obama is seeking re-election.
Both bills would add burdensome requirements for groups such as the League of Women Voters and the NAACP that conduct massive voter registration drives. The new rules would include getting sworn statements from each volunteer — these can number in the thousands — that he or she will follow election rules. The bills also would shorten the window to submit completed voter registration forms from the current 10 days to 48 hours. Groups that embark on large-scale statewide voter drives would find this a managerial nightmare, which is the apparent intent.
The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, the immediate past chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, would cut the time period for early voting from 15 days to seven days. Nearly one in every five people who voted in the 2010 general election voted at an early voting site. Lawmakers should be forcing elections supervisors to open more sites for longer periods instead of encouraging wrongheaded elections supervisors such as Pinellas County's Deborah Clark, who refuses to open more than three early voting sites because it's too much work. Early voting during the 2008 election was a boon for Obama and the Democrats, and Republicans would reduce it in favor of more absentee ballot voting, which tends to favor Republican candidates.
Even more outrageous, both the House and Senate would overturn 40 years of sound public policy by no longer allowing someone who has changed his or her address to update that information at the polling place and cast a regular ballot. The House bill is slightly different, only barring a polling place change of address if the voter has moved out of the county. Elections supervisors say that forcing all voters who need to make these changes cast provisional ballots would make it harder to finalize elections and could disenfranchise tens of thousands of Floridians. Some of the people most likely to be affected by this are women, college students and renters, all of whom are perceived as leaning toward the Democratic Party. And more than half of all provisional ballots cast in the last election were thrown out.
There are plenty of other questionable provisions in legislation the House approved Thursday. They include creating a partisan committee to schedule the presidential primary and changing the rules for constitutional amendments proposed by the Legislature so the state Supreme Court couldn't knock amendments off the ballot for misleading wording. But the biggest threats to democracy are the efforts to make it harder to register to vote and to cast ballots. This is an attempt to erode fundamental rights in order to maintain a partisan advantage and tilt elections, and Floridians of all political stripes should not stand for it.