U.S. Senate field hearing in Tampa exposes flaws in Florida's new voting law

01/27/12 Janelle Irwin
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Florida’s new voting law has received criticism from groups across the country who think it makes voting harder for minorities and people with low incomes. Today in Tampa, U.S. Senator Dick Durban, a Democrat from Illinois, held the first ever field meeting of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida was one of hundreds who turned out to oppose the law.

One provision in the law reduces the amount of time organizations and other outside parties have to assist people with voter registration. The law used to allow ten days for people to submit voter registration forms on behalf of another individual. But under the new law, those applications must be submitted within 48 hours. Mark Ferrulo, executive director of Progress Florida said the hefty fines levied for breaking that law have caused some groups to stop voter drives.

Senator Durban invited Governor Rick Scott to attend the field hearing, but he said that invitation was declined. Durban said he would have enjoyed asking the Governor, who signed the legislation last year, questions about the law’s intent.

Durban is referring to a new requirement that voters may only cast a provisional ballot if they have moved to another county without updating their voter registration prior to voting. Typically only about 40 percent of provisional ballots end up counting. But Michael Ertel, the Supervisor of Elections in Seminole County said if a voter is eligible to vote their ballot will be counted.

Kimberly Kelley is a tea party supporter. She said this law has nothing to do with partisanship or blocking voters from their place at the polls. Rather, it is a way to stamp out voter fraud.

But advocates still worry the law is nothing more than an attempt to suppress voting rights for minorities. Adora Obi Nweze is the president of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP. She compared the new law to the Jim Crowe laws that encouraged segregation and inequality.

Senator Durban invited the Republican members of the Subcommittee to attend the field hearing, but none accepted. The voting law is in effect in all but five Florida counties including Hillsborough. Those counties require a Department of Justice review of any changes to voting laws due to their history of voter discrimination.

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We'd all like to ask our beloved Governor all sorts of questions, but he is too busy staring at whatever it is he sees when he looks out there...