TALLAHASSEE -- Voting rights groups blasted the Florida Legislature Monday for an elections bill that could violate federal law by making it harder for non-English speaking voters to get help at the polls.
The advocates said Republican lawmakers are trying to impose new barriers to voting and they aimed their opposition squarely at state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, architect of House Bill 7013, which requires anyone seeking to help a voter must previously be known to the voter and no one can help more than 10 voters in an election.
"It impacts people who are elderly, people with disabilities and people who do not speak English as their primary language," said Gihan Perera, executive director of Florida New Majority, a Miami group that assisted thousands of voters in 2012. "This has dire consequences, especially for Florida's communities of color such as Latino, Asian and Haitian-American citizens who routinely depend on language assistance."
Perera said when people waited for up to eight hours in November to vote in Miami-Dade, his group trained Creole-speaking ballot assistors to help voters complete affidavits required for anyone seeking help in voting -- a solution made illegal under Latvala's proposal. Miami-Dade and Broward counties have the state's only trilingual ballots (English, Spanish and Creole).
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Joining in the criticism were the Florida Immigrant Coalition, SEIU Local 1199 and the Florida State Conference of the NAACP and the Advancement Project. The NAACP and SEIU, a union for health care workers, are strong supporters of Democrats.
Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez of the Advancement Project said the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 protects the rights of voters to seek assistance at the polls from volunteers and community organizers, whether they know them or not.
Latvala said he added the provision solely on the recommendation of J.C. Planas, a former Republican House member from Miami and a lawyer who specializes in election law cases.
"It's become kind of a political tool in many areas to have folks who stay at the precincts all day offering their services to help people go in and vote, and in many cases in an intimidating fashion," Latvala said. He said the bill preserves the right of any voter to have "your grandchild, or your sister, or someone that you're familiar with, go to the polls with you."
The Senate has scheduled a final vote on the bill Wednesday, which would then send it back to the House.
Voting rights advocates also renewed their call for mandatory 14 days of early voting, including the Sunday before the election. Lawmakers plan to require eight days of early voting for eight hours each day with six extra days and a maximum of 12 hours each day at the discretion of election supervisors.
Perera said early voting on the Sunday before Election Day, known as "souls to the polls," was especially popular among African-American churches, and he called it "a tradition in the state." But the Legislature outlawed it in its controversial 2011 election bill, and the proposal under consideration this session would make it optional.
State Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, leader of the Senate's 14 Democrats, wrote a commentary in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in which he called the GOP-crafted elections bill "an opportunity lost."