Tough new voting restrictions clamp down in Florida; Video of Broward elections chief Snipes

By Amber Statler-Matthews, BrowardBulldog.org

Broward voters who plan to turn out to the polls during the busy 2012 election season better be prepared for changes.

State voter laws approved last year reduce the number of early voting days and locations, make it tougher for organizations to register voters, impose strict identification requirements and make it more difficult for felons to regain the right to vote.

“These laws were designed to further depress elections because legislators want to know ahead of time who will be voting.” said Nova Southeastern University constitutional law Professor Robert Jarvis.

Florida has two elections this year when voters turn out in large numbers – Aug. 14 that features primaries for federal, state and county races and then Nov. 6 when the race for president is decided and turnout is at its peak.

Florida is 1 of 14 states that changed election laws in 2011.

The changes in Florida were approved by a Republican-controlled state Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott citing worries over election fraud.

“I want people to vote, but I also want to make sure there’s no fraud involved in elections,” said Scott when he signed the voter changes into law. “All of us as individuals that vote want to make sure that our elections are fair and honest.”

Cost savings has also been given as a reason for the new voter laws.

The changes strike hardest at Broward Democrats, who outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 in Florida’s second largest county. Democrats make up a little more than half of Broward’s 1 million voters. Republicans and independents about equally split the balance of county voters.

Democrats turned out in force during the 2008 presidential election to take advantage of early voting, weathering long lines at some voting locations. Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes expects “long lines in November because of fewer early voting days.”

One of the biggest changes is a sharp reduction in the time allowed for early voting, a period cut nearly in half from 14 days to eight. The 2011 restrictions come after 4.3 million Florida residents voted early by absentee ballot or in-person in the 2008 presidential election.

According to a Florida Senate report that analyzed election records, 52 percent of those who voted early were Democrats compared to 37 percent Republicans. In Broward during the 2008 presidential election 55,038 people voted early — 33,751 Democrats, 14,453 Republican and 6,834 third party/independents. A total of 341, 607 Broward residents cast ballots in that election.

The state’s decision to reduce the number of early voting days is at odds with the desire of voters expressed in an online poll taken last spring by the Broward elections office. Just 21 percent of the nearly 400 people who participated said they preferred to cast their ballot on Election Day. Seventy-nine percent said they preferred absentee ballots, or voting in person at early voting locations.

About a quarter of those respondents said they preferred early voting because of convenience. Another 22 percent said “it fit their schedule.” More than 60 percent of the poll takers identified themselves as Democrats, 27 percent were Republicans and the rest independents or third party.

CLOSED SUNDAY

The impact on voting in Florida is similar to other states that have tackled new limits on voters, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

A center study last fall reported, “These new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority, and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities. This wave of changes may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 presidential election.

One of the biggest changes in Florida potentially affecting minorities eliminates early voting on the last Sunday before an election. In 2008, nearly 54 percent of those early voters were black, one third Hispanic.

According to the NAACP, that year 33 percent of blacks in Florida and nearly 24 percent of Hispanics in the state voted on the last Sunday before the presidential election.

The change will end the “Souls to the Polls” turnout drive used by African American and Latino churches before the 2008 general election, according to the Brennan report. Obama won Florida by about 200,000 votes that year. Many church goers went directly to the polls once the service was over.

President Obama garnered strong support from black voters and also benefited from a change in political allegiances among many Hispanics, according to a 2009 report from Applied Research Center, a racial justice think tank with offices in Chicago, Oakland and New York City.

EASIER TO CHALLENGE ADDRESSES

Voters also face new challenges at the polls if they move outside their precinct and don’t update their voter registration documents.

Previously, voters showing proof that they had moved were allowed to cast their regular ballot. Now those with different addresses will have to cast a provisional ballot that won’t be counted until their new address is confirmed.
Mike Ertel, the Republican elections supervisor in Seminole County, said the hype over provisional ballot equates to “fear-mongering.”

“Requiring provisional ballots for voters who move across county lines is vital to ensure that they vote only once,” Ertel said.

The state’s election clamp down also extends to third party groups who register voters. Statewide trends since 2008 show Hispanics prefer to register as Democrats or independents. In the past three years, 73,000 Hispanics have registered as Democrats and 31,000 registered as Republicans. Another 76,000 registered non-partisan.

Blacks and Hispanics in Florida register to vote through drives twice as often as whites, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Groups that register voters used to have 10 days to handover registration forms to the state elections office. Now they must do so within 48 hours or face penalties and fines up to $1,000.

Concerned about volunteers being subjected to possible fines, the Florida League of Women voters has ended registration drives for the first time in 72 years, according to Deirdre Macnab, president of the organization’s Florida chapter.

Snipes said her office is working to help churches, community leaders and organizations follow the law so they don’t get into trouble.

“The Voter Education Department has added a couple staff members. Their efforts are expanding,” added Snipes.

Snipes said there were a lot of “mom and pop voter drives around town” in 2008, but that she expects fewer will mount such drives this year.

Felons, many for drug-related offenses, also face a harder time regaining the right to vote.

Gov. Scott rolled back lesser restrictions put in place by former Gov. Charlie Crist, and set a 5-year-time limit for felons to regain their rights.

In a report issued by the Brennan Center, the group suggests the 2011 Florida voting laws “made it substantially more difficult or impossible for people with past felony convictions to get their voting rights restored.”

POLITICS OF ELECTORAL CHANGE

Mitch Ceasar, the chairman of the Broward Democratic Party, says the changes in Florida are politically-motivated.

“The Republican Suppression Act is doing a magnificent job to keep voters away,” he said.

State Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry said that’s not true.

“The changes are about reducing voter fraud and saving tax dollars,” Curry said.
Professor Jarvis doesn’t buy the Republicans’ argument.

“Voting is where government acts efficiently. We’re talking pennies, slivers of pennies, on what would be saved on elections,” he said.

The Florida League of Women Voters, the Florida Public Interest Research Group and Rock the Vote, a non-profit group that seeks to engage young voters, filed a federal lawsuit in December claiming the state’s new law violates National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and Voter Rights Act of 1965.

In October, a Miami federal judge threw out a similar legal challenge filed by the American Civil Liberties Union saying it lacked standing to sue because it had not been harmed by the new law. Other lawsuits have been filed.

Meanwhile Snipes’ office is caught in the tug-of-war between the parties.
Republicans have accused her of making it more difficult for GOP supporters to vote.

Republicans had been up in arms since November of last year about the decreased number of early voting locations in Broward.

In November, Richard DeNapoli, Broward Republican Executive Committee Chairman Richard DeNapoli fired off a letter to Snipes complaining about a lack of early voting locations in areas represented by Republicans.

After looking into the matter, Snipes recently agreed to reinstate one location, Pompano Beach City Hall, for the Jan. 31 Republican primary.

Reporter Amber Statler-Matthews, who conducted the Snipes interview, can be reached at astatlermatthews@browardbulldog.org

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