Fresh evidence that Florida's new elections law suppresses voting

BRADENTON HERALD EDITORIALApril 4, 2012 

Powerful evidence now exists that Florida's new elections law is suppressing voter registration as feared. A new study that tabulates registration since the law went into effect last July found 81,471 fewer Florida residents on the rolls compared with the same time frame leading up to the 2008 election.

The New York Times analyzed registration data and uncovered that startling figure. Although the study could not specifically determine the reasons behind the steep drop-off, last week's report indicates a major decline in places where there should have been more registrations, places with growing voting-age populations. In Miami-Dade, for example, voter registration plunged by 39 percent.

The link between the law and the suspension of registration drives is clearly showing up in these findings.

The Florida League of Women Voters suspended its voter registration drives because the new law requires organizations to file completed forms within 48 hours or face fines, a threat too onerous to risk.

The previous 10-day allowance served registration drives well, especially on long holiday weekends when the 48-hour clock would expire before elections offices open.

Two Florida teachers unknowingly violated the rule, exposing themselves to legal troubles.

Rock the Vote, which focuses on registering young people, bypassed Florida in its national campaign to register high school students. Both organizations and the Florida Public Interest Research Group Education Fund are suing to get the law overturned, citing First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of association.

The law also forces organizations to register with the state and provide a list of all volunteers working on a drive. Those volunteers must swear an oath to uphold election laws.

The courts should reject this law as a deliberate suppression of voting by minorities, young voters and other constituencies that typically support Democrats. The Republican-controlled Legislature and GOP governor instituted this law under the guise of halting voter fraud, a bogus rationale since county elections officers report little if any such problems.

A University of Florida professor and elections expert testified during a U.S. Senate hearing in January that not only is there no evidence that the law has reduced the number of invalid voter registration forms submitted to county elections supervisors, the invalid percentage has actually increased since the law's enactment.

Clearly again, third-party voter registration organizations such as the League of Women Voters are not responsible for invalid forms -- and in fact are more likely to turn in valid ones.

In research of voting in this year's presidential primary, that professor, Daniel Smith, found the five counties that have not implemented the new law enjoyed greater turnout.

Those five, including Hillsborough and Hardee, are protected by a provision in the Voting Rights Act that requires federal approval of new voting laws due to past discrimination. A three-judge panel is currently considering that case, separate from the lawsuit.

Smith's latest research found the new law's reduction in the number of early voting days played a key role in Republican primary voter turnout. With the five additional days, early voting totals were 10 percentage points higher than in the state's other 62 counties.

The professor also recently noted on his elections blog that the law would have a greater impact during a Democratic primary as Republicans are far less likely to cast votes early in person.

Considering George W. Bush won Florida by a mere 537 votes -- and thus the presidency in 2000 -- the intent of the elections law comes into sharp focus.

With more than 81,000 fewer registered voters in a battleground state expected to be pivotal in the coming presidential election, Florida is performing a disservice to democracy.

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