Battle Looms Over Florida’s Elections Bill
Around the State
A highly controversial bill, passed by the Legislature earlier this month and expected to be signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott at any moment, could mean all the difference in the 2012 presidential election.
State Republican lawmakers who passed HB 1355 say they want to eliminate the potential for voter fraud, but Democrats claim the bill is nothing more than a partisan pre-election attack aimed at disenfranchising left-leaning voters, and note that there have been no serious cases of voter fraud in Florida during the past two election cycles.
Democrats, who are grossly outnumbered at the state level, could do little to prevent the bill from passing the House and Senate on party line votes. On the national level, however, Democrats are alerting the Department of Justice about the bill and what they claim is its potential to hinder a citizen’s right to vote.
All six members of Florida’s congressional delegation, as well as U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, sent a letter Tuesday to the Department of Justice asking for a review of the bill. The review is enabled by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because of historic discrimination in five counties.
“We urge you to use the authority granted to the Department of Justice by the Voting Rights Act to review the impact of HB 1355 on the five Florida counties currently protected under Section 5 preclearance requirements. We are confident that any honest examination of this legislation will determine that it is in clear violation of the Voting Rights Act,” the letter reads in part.
HB 1355 decreases the number of days allowed for early voting from 14 to six. Democrats typically outnumber Republicans in early voting periods in Florida.
The bill also prevents voters who move outside their former county from changing their address on the day of an election (although there is an exemption for military members and their families), and imposes fines and restrictions on third-party voter registration groups. Democrats claim those provisions are aimed at college students and civic groups that look to register voters.
In their letter to the Department of Justice, Florida’s congressional Democrats said those provisions would have a “chilling effect” on voter registration in the Sunshine State.
The letter was initiated out of U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch’s office, but U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who was recently tapped by President Barack Obama to chair the Democratic National Committee and will help lead her party’s efforts to re-elect Obama, also signed it.
Scott has until Saturday to sign the elections bill, which will take effect immediately upon his signing it into law. He is widely expected to sign the bill, but when asked about it Tuesday, Scott said he was concerned about voter fraud, but it was still being reviewed by his office.
“The things I care about with regard to elections -- I want to make sure people have the opportunity to get out and vote. I want people to get out and vote and I don’t want fraud. That’ll be the filter I use in going through the bill,” Scott said.
Beyond national politics, HB 1355 also has the potential to affect local races in Florida already in progress. Scott is expected to sign the bill into law sometime this week, allowing Miami-Dade County to close early voting polls in the mayor’s race on Sunday.
The Miami-Dade County supervisor of elections' office has already sent out a public notice alerting citizens that there will be no early voting Sunday, although there will be extended hours Saturday.
Former Republican state Rep. Marcelo Llorente, a candidate in the Miami-Dade County mayor’s race, filed a complaint Wednesday with the 11th Judicial Circuit over the cancellation of early voting on Sunday, asking for an emergency hearing Thursday to reinstate the available voting hours.
“My interest is in the impact it’s having on the people of this county in the eleventh hour,” Llorente said. “Our county should be fighting (HB 1355) rather than defending it,” he added, noting that 2,000 early ballots were cast the previous Sunday.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is monitoring the bill, but even with one lawsuit filed against it at the local level, the elections bill is yet to become law, so her office's actions are limited. The Florida Department of State, tasked with enforcing the law, would be the first line of defense in the event of a federal lawsuit.
"We certainly are aware of all of it and we're keeping track of it, but at this point it's a little premature," Bondi spokesperson Jennifer Davis said.
Reach Gray Rohrer at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (850) 727-0859.