On Jan. 27 the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held a hearing in Tampa on the 2011 changes to the Florida election law.
Chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who was joined by Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the hearing was attended by more than 300 people; an additional 200 people overflowed to the lobby.
In two hours of testimony from two elected Republican supervisors of elections, a political scientist, representatives of legal, minority and student groups and a former Florida secretary of state, the irony of Florida, which spent the eight years after the 2000 election mismanagement cleaning up its election laws, now reversing course and disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of qualified voters was not lost on the senators or audience.
The long-term public policy implications of discouraging eligible citizens from exercising their right to vote, beginning in the high schools and continuing through working years and retirement, are positively frightening. Fewer citizen voters and more corporations-are-people domination of the political process do not a healthy democracy make.
Why did Florida target third-party voter registration?
Testimony at a previous hearing of the subcommittee disclosed that in the 2008 election, 6 percent of non-Hispanic white voters registered through voter-registration drives, while 12 percent of Hispanic voters and 13 percent of African-Americans registered through a drive. Have the stringent new requirements, which have led such organizations as the League of Women Voters and numerous student voter registration organizations to stop registering voters, had an effect on registration? In the latest period for which comparable figures are available, there were 77,299 voter-registration applications processed in December 2007; in December 2011, only 45,026 were processed, a decrease of almost 42 percent.
Why did Florida target early-voting availability?
The subcommittee record disclosed that in the 2008 election, 2.6 million Florida voters, representing 31 percent of all votes cast, voted in person at early-voting locations. Apparently, that was too many votes for some people. In the recently conducted 2012 Republican presidential primary, on average, counties reduced early voting hours by more than 28.
Thanks to the research that Daniel A. Smith of the University of Florida submitted to the Senate subcommittee, why early voting was targeted for restriction is clear. In 2008, though African-Americans comprised 13 percent of the state electorate, they cast 23 percent of in-person early votes. Further, in those counties which allowed early voting on Sundays, including the now-prohibited Sunday before election day, 31 percent of in-person early votes were cast by African-Americans. Hispanics comprise 11 percent of total voters and 11 percent of early voters, yet they accounted for 22 percent of voters on the final Sunday of early voting. In other words, Florida's minority voters made heavy use of early voting.
The message to college students: Don't bother to vote. Voting is a learned behavior that generations of Americans have attempted to foster beginning when their young children accompany them to vote. High school civics teachers often treat registering to vote as part of the curriculum. More than one Florida high school teacher was turned in to the authorities this year doing just that, for violation of Florida's strict new third-party registration rules. Strike 1.
The Legislature moved the state primary date from two weeks after state colleges begin the fall term to one week before they begin. Strike 2.
Voters who move from one county to another can no longer sign an affidavit at the polls and vote a regular ballot. Now they must vote a provisional ballot. Testimony by one supervisor of elections indicated counties with multiple colleges anticipate massive numbers of provisional ballots. In 2008, Pew Charitable Trusts research found that fewer than 49 percent of Florida provisional ballots were counted. Almost as if to ensure that even fewer are counted in 2012, elections officials have no funds to hire additional staff and an accelerated certification deadline was enacted that gives even less time for provisional ballots to be counted. Strike 3.
In closing remarks, Nelson concluded that the most precious right in a democracy is the right to vote, that people all over the world and in our own country have died to obtain that right, and that these laws will surely make it more difficult for people who work or have limited means of transportation, for the elderly, for students, for the disabled and for minorities to vote.
Sharp, a retired lawyer, is a past president of the Collier County Democratic Club and a current member of the Florida Democratic Party central and state executive committees. He is a member of the Foreclosure Task Force of Collier County and the board of Americans United for Separation of Church and State of Collier County. He has lived in Pelican Bay since 2004. Contact him at 202-359-0469.