By Gayle Andrews
Tampa—Hundreds of Floridians packed a Hillsborough County courtroom for an unprecedented hearing on changes to Florida’s election law passed last spring by the Republican dominated Florida legislature. The first ever field hearing on legislation that critics say dramatically alters voter participation and actually suppresses minority votes was conducted by US Senator Dick Durbin, Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights Committee.
US Senator Bill Nelson of Florida was sworn in to participate in the hearing. Nelson decried the law when it passed last spring, challenging its undoing of necessary reforms to election laws resulting from the 2000 election debacle. According to sworn testimony during the hearing, the impact of HB 1355 is weighted heavily against Blacks, Hispanics, the elderly and students who vote democratic overwhelmingly and turned out in unprecedented numbers in 2008 for President Barak Obama. Florida’s law is considered the most onerous and because it is the largest most influential state of the 35 with voter changes made by Republican legislatures nationwide.
Senator Durbin extended an invitation to Governor Rick Scott to attend and discusses the changes to the law but Scott did not appear. Republican members of the committee were also no shows.
Testimony from a host of elections experts revealed what Nelson and Durbin called an obvious “voter suppression act,” meant to hurt Blacks, Hispanics and young voters at the polls.”
Here are the changes to the law impacting minority voter performance.
Reduced early voting days from 14 to 8 days eliminating Sunday, the day Blacks and Hispanics vote more than any other ethnic group.
Dramatic reduction in time for submission of voter registration, burdensome paperwork, penalties for groups that traditionally register minorities. Those groups include the League of Women Voters, NAACP, teachers and a host of civic groups who have been discouraged by the penalties in particular.
Disallow change of address at the polls and making voters vote by provisional ballots. This change disproportionately impacts college students, the military and minorities. Upwards of 40% of provisional ballots are likely to be discarded.
Only Republican Supervisor of Elections for Seminole County Michael Ertel attempted to defend the law. He said he deputized school principals so they would avoid the $1,000 penalties by missing registration deadlines. Volusia Co Supervisor of Elections Ann McFall said the law is designed to discourage third parties from participating in the process.
“The fact is a number of states including Florida have made it harder for some people to vote,” said Nelson.
A US District Court panel is reviewing the law and the US Justice Department will likely have the final say and determine if the law is a violation of the Voting Rights Act.