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Groups decry 3 election changes

Published Sep. 10, 2005

A coalition of liberal-leaning legal organizations has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to block three key provisions of Florida's new elections law, contending the changes would cause more problems for minority voters than they would solve.

The Florida Equal Voting Rights Project objects to the way the new law requires every voting precinct to post a list of voter responsibilities, allows voters to cast provisional ballots that may or may not be counted later, and changes the rules for removing felons from the voter rolls.

"Our fear is that, very quietly, what the Legislature may have done is codify procedures that I think are guaranteed to disenfranchise even more minority voters at the next election," Howard Simon, executive director of the voting rights project, said Friday.

The project is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Florida, the Florida Justice Institute and Florida Legal Services.

Gov. Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris, both Republicans, see no problems with the new law, their offices said. Bush spokeswoman Lisa Gates called the new law "a model for the nation" and predicted it will result in raising the number of votes cast by minorities.

"This is a real reach, to claim that things like posting voter responsibilities is the same as tactics to prevent minorities from voting in the past," Gates said. "That's ridiculous."

Harris, the state's top elections official, provided the blueprint for the new law that was written by the Legislature and fully supports it, spokesman David Host said.

"Obviously, she believes very strongly in every single provision of the reform act," he said.

But Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Pam Iorio said she agrees with two of the objections. Iorio said lawmakers should fix provisions regarding provisional ballots and the removal of felons from voter rolls.

The Justice Department must approve changes in election law in five Florida counties with a history of discrimination against minority voters: Hillsborough, Hendry, Hardee, Collier and Monroe. But the practical impact of any objections raised by federal lawyers would be to block portions of the law from taking affect statewide. The Legislature then could make corrections to satisfy the objections or ask a federal court to set aside the Justice Department's objections.

The Justice Department has until Aug. 14 to endorse the new law, ask the state for more information or raise objections.

The Legislature approved the new elections law this spring in response to the problems exposed during the historic presidential recount. It requires the elimination of punch card voting machines next year and enhanced voter education training for poll workers.

Simon said parts of the new law, such as the ban on punch card voting machines, are welcome. But he said the sections that the voting rights project objects to "would make Florida election law even worse."

Among the objections sent to the Justice Department:

The "voter responsibilities" listed by the Legislature have no basis in state law and "enormous potential for discrimination" of minority voters.

The list of voter responsibilities includes keeping the voting address current, knowing the proper precinct and bringing the proper identification to the polling place. While state law now requires voters to bring a photo identification, the law also allows voters to vote by sworn affidavit if they do not bring proper identification.

The list of "voter responsibilities" does not mention the affidavit.

The new law also requires each precinct to post "voter rights," but Simon said those rights reflect state law. A state elections task force recommended posting both voter rights and responsibilities.

Sen. Daryl Jones, D-Miami, said Friday that he supported posting voter rights and that Republicans insisted on listing responsibilities as well.

"I knew there would be a problem with it from the very beginning," said Jones, a candidate for governor.

Creating provisional ballots, which allow voters to cast ballots and elections officials to sort out later whether they were properly registered, is a good concept, the voting rights project said.

But the group told the Justice Department the law unfairly instructs elections officials to reject provisional ballots if it turns out the voter cast the ballot at the wrong precinct.

Iorio said elections officials also want that provision rewritten.

The new law prevents the state from again hiring a private contractor to help remove felons from the voter lists. But the voting rights project said the new section still places an unfair burden on elections supervisors to identify and remove felons from the voter rolls without standards to follow.

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