1. Opinion

Florida's voting fairness problem

Published Jan. 31, 2012

As Republican primary voters go to the polls today, there is a cloud over the state's voting process. Florida law imposes undue burdens on African-American, Hispanic and younger voters, according to witnesses at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing in Tampa on Friday. The testimony adds to the mounting evidence that the election law changes Florida Republicans passed last spring to ostensibly address voter fraud — a nonexistent problem in this state — are designed to interfere with the voting rights of Democratic-leaning constituencies.

Six of the seven witnesses that testified at the Senate subcommittee field hearing on protecting the right to vote in Florida said that the new election law is making it harder for Floridians to register to vote and cast a regular ballot. Early voting has been reduced from 14 days to eight and is barred on the Sunday before Election Day; penalties and fines are imposed for third-party groups that fail to submit completed voter registration forms within 48 hours; and voters who moved to another county are required to cast a provisional ballot rather than change their address at the polls.

At the hearing held by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights that was requested by Sen. Bill Nelson, more evidence emerged that these restrictions fall disproportionately hard on minority groups. This is important since a three-judge federal panel in Washington is reviewing the new Florida law for violations of the Voting Rights Act. Five counties — Hillsborough, Collier, Hardee, Hendry and Monroe — with a history of voter discrimination must "preclear" any changes to voting procedures before they go into effect. (Because of this, today's election is being held under two sets of rules, one for those five counties and one for everywhere else.

Daniel Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, offered this statistical proof of discrimination: In the 2008 general election, African-Americans comprised only 13 percent of total voters but were 31 percent of voters on the Sunday before Election Day. Similarly the state's Hispanic voters were 11 percent of total voters but made up 22 percent of those who cast their ballot on the last Sunday of early voting. Obviously eliminating early voting on that day suppresses the turnout of minority voters who tend to vote Democrat.

Ann McFall, the supervisor of elections of Volusia County, and a Republican, testified that the law is onerous and unnecessary. McFall was particularly incensed over the requirement that people who move to a new county must use a provisional ballot and can no longer update their address at the polls. She said this will have a serious impact on college student voter participation. McFall noted that the most active college campus in her county is Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black university, where students march from the campus to an early voting site for every major election.

Florida does not have a problem with voter fraud, as every hearing witness agreed. But the state does have a fairness problem, with an election law designed to keep some people from participating in the democratic process.


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