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Florida GOP Passes Radical Overhaul of Election Law, Jeopardizing Voting Rights of Elderly, Military, Students

A growing number of GOP-led states are launching a concerted effort to severely impede and disenfranchise voters across the country. Last Thursday, the Florida legislature did its part by passing a 128-page “sweeping rewrite” of the state’s elections laws with “head-spinning speed” that now heads to Gov. Rick Scott (R) for signature. Passed along a … Continued

A growing number of GOP-led states are launching a concerted effort to severely impede and disenfranchise voters across the country. Last Thursday, the Florida legislature did its part by passing a 128-pagesweeping rewrite” of the state's elections laws with “head-spinning speed” that now heads to Gov. Rick Scott (R) for signature. Passed along a party-line vote, the bill — HB 1355 — contains several provisions that drastically alter election laws to disadvantage and disenfranchise voters across the state:

Forces Provisional Ballots: The bill eliminates a long-standing provision that allows people to change their address or name at the polls. For four decades, Florida allowed those with proper photo ID whose name or address had changed due to marriage, or divorce, or a move by a military family to update that information on Election Day. Under HB 1355, those changes would only be allowed for voters moving within the same county. Otherwise, a voter will not have to cast a provisional ballot and later provide identification to the supervisor of elections. As one Florida supervisor of elections told the Florida Independent, the provision is “disturbing” as provisional ballots are often reserved for close races and thus “go uncounted.”

Cuts Early Voting: HB 1355 also cuts the time for early voting from 14 days to eight. The early voting reform was among former Gov. Charlie Crist's (R-Florida) election reforms to “prevent embarrassments like the 2000 election.” As the Miami Herald's Joy-Ann Reid notes, “It was a hard-won victory for working people who sometimes can't get to the polls if they work odd hours, or run out of time to resolve a problem at the polls.” According to Reid, in 2008, black churches and college students “took full advantage of the extra time” — two groups that overwhelmingly voted for President Obama.

Invalidates Absentee Ballots: The bill severely undercuts the absentee ballot. Under this bill, absentee ballots are determined illegal if the voter's signature on the certificate does not match the signature on record.” As the Herald-Tribune notes, this will affect “voters who suffer from arthritis, strokes and other ailments that affect their handwriting. Those who fail to update their signatures in time would be out of luck.” The bill states that, if elections results are contested, a court cannot “consider any evidence other than the signatures on the voter's certificate and the signature of the elector in the registration records” in determining the ballots validity.

Fines Third Party Voting Groups: Third-party voter registration groups, such as the non-partisan League of Women voters, the NAACP, and the Boy Scouts are also targeted by HB 1355 by requiring these groups to turn in registration cards within 48 hours of signature or face fines. Voter groups note that “the requirement would be difficult to meet if they are registering thousands of voters at a time.” Because of the “undue burden” this provision places on “thousands of volunteers,” the League of Women Voters — an organization with a “91-year history of registering and educating voters” — announced today that it will “cease [its] voter registration efforts in this state” should HB 1355 become law

Florida Republicans conjured up the often-used but non-existent specter of voter fraud to legitimize this comprehensive blow to voters' rights. Bill sponsor state Rep. Dennis Baxley (R) said the goal was “to have a smooth process going into the next election cycle.” However, the Florida Department of State noted that “there were just 31 cases of alleged voter fraud” between 2008 and 2011, only two of which resulted in arrests. What's more, “after the electoral debacles earlier in the decade,” Florida developed a database that allows poll workers to check if an individual already voted and to confirm voter identities. Citing the complete lack of need for HB 1355, numerous state publications and critics note that this is most likely intended to cripple low-income voters, seniors, students, and minorities who tend to lean Democrat.

In response to this overreach, an incensed Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida) informed the governor in a letter that if Scott doesn't veto the bill, he will have to answer to the US Justice Department (DOJ). Florida is one of 9 states that, under the Voting Rights Acts, must get federal clearance for “any changes to election laws that could impact racial, ethnic or language minorities.” Nelson said today on the Senate floor that he has alerted the DOJ Civil Rights division about the potential violation and will seek an investigation into the law should it pass.

Though generally thought to support the bill, Scott “declined to take a position” on HB 1355, offering “I want to make sure people vote.” “The things I'm going to look at is 'Does it increase the chance for people to stay active,'” he asked. The answer is a definitive, unequivocal no.

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