MANATEE -- It’s squabbling as usual between the political parties over an elections bill recently signed by Gov. Rick Scott.
Democrats and Republicans see CS/CS/HB 1355, differently, beyond reducing early voting days from 14 to 8, requiring voters who have moved into the county without renewing their registration to cast a provisional ballot, and more strictly regulating third-party voter registration drives.
Asked if the new law seemed to be politically motivated, Manatee Supervisor of Elections Bob Sweat said, “I don’t write the laws, I go by what the legislators write and the governor signs. I just try to do my job and stay out of it.”
He recommends those moving into Manatee to update their voter registration information at his office in advance to avoid any problems at the polls on election day. Manatee has more than 198,000 registered voters.
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The new law will hurt voters who try to make changes at the polls, such as students, those at the poverty level, military people and minorities who tend to move more, said Manatee County Democratic Party Chairman Richard O’Brien.
The local Democratic Party has already redoubled its voter registration efforts, due to the new election law, O’Brien said Tuesday.
The law is politically motivated and designed to curtail voting by Democrats, O’Brien said.
Republicans countered that it was meant to halt fraud at the polls, and to stop groups like the now-defunct ACORN from conducting massive and controversial voter-registration drives.
The president of the Lakewood Ranch Republican Club, Craig Trigueiro, said the new law is designed to prevent the fraudulent voter.
“I don’t think anybody, including Democrats, would want anybody to cast a vote who is not really entitled to cast a vote,” said Trigueiro.
As for reducing early voting days, he was in favor of it.
“If I had my druthers, there would be only three days of early voting, period,” he said, explaining that if voting is allowed too far in advance, last-minute, game-changing information about a candidate could not be taken into account.
But O’Brien said the law takes 30 years of bipartisan legislation encouraging people to vote, and throws it under the bus.
O’Brien contended it eliminates the biggest voting days for African-Americans in Manatee County -- the days just before the general election, set for Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012.
Next year, early voting is set for Aug. 4-11, with the polls closed on the final Sunday before the Aug. 14 primary; and from Oct. 27-Nov. 3, with the polls again closed on the final Sunday before the Nov. 6 general election, according to information provided by Sweat.
“There’s been this busing to the polls program after church, the churches take groups of people from church -- this is especially designed to curtail that,” said O’Brien.
Told about O’Brien’s claim that African-American voters who tend to vote just before the election would be adversely affected, Trigueiro questioned whether churches busing people to the polls could legally retain their nonprofit status.
“It’s my understanding that for a church to have nonprofit status, they are not allowed to have political campaigns,” he said.
Nothing in the new law includes any reference to race, gender or country of origin, he added.
“It didn’t say black voters could no longer vote. Didn’t say if you’re Hispanic, you have to show your birth certificate in order to vote,” he said.
“The whole principal of justice is equality under the law; if all of us have to follow the same laws in voting, where’s the problem?” Trigueiro said.
Scott spokesman Brian Burgess said the governor was confident that the law wouldn’t harm voters.
The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the only thing “prejudicial and discriminatory” about the issue was the description of minority voters as being different from Caucasians and Anglos.
He said third-party registration groups should face fines for holding on to registration cards for more than two days.
“This is not targeted toward any racial, ethnic or gender population,” he said. “I heard all this stuff about Jim Crow laws and lynchings -- how inappropriate.”
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031. The Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau contributed to this report.