Protect access to polls
Op-Ed by Robert M. Brandon appeared in The Tampa Tribune on January 27, 2012.
As Republicans head to the polls next week in Florida's presidential preference primary, the spotlight will once again be on how the Sunshine State conducts elections. A U.S. Senate subcommittee will hold a hearing in Tampa today on new voting laws that place roadblocks to the ballot box that will disproportionately affect minorities, young adults and people with low incomes. The new laws will make it harder to register to vote, cast a vote and have that vote counted.
Last year, Florida legislators passed legislation that places onerous restrictions on voter registration drives commonly held by civic groups, churches and schools. They also voted to reduce the number of early voting days and eliminate early voting the Sunday before Election Day — a day that sees a large turnout among African-American and Latino voters.
Finally, at a time of record foreclosures and workers relocating for jobs, the new laws no longer allow registered voters to update their voter registration at the polls if they move to another county, causing many to cast provisional ballots, many of which may not be counted. It is clear these laws will suppress the votes of thousands of Floridians.
We have seen the chilling effects on teachers helping eligible high school students register to vote.
Recently, two Florida teachers were found to have violated the law on voter registration drives when they failed to turn in the applications within the new 48-hour deadline. These teachers, each year, have worked to get their students registered to vote when they turn 18. It would be a shame for the teachers — and especially their students — if they decided to abandon their efforts to register students because of fines up to $1,000 per year for missing what is now the shortest turnaround time in the nation.
These unreasonable deadlines and steep fines have led many civic groups to cease registering Florida voters. The League of Women Voters, which has for 72 years conducted voter registration drives in communities across the state, decided the risk of fines for its volunteers is too great to continue its voter registration efforts.
The law also cuts back the number of days for early voting despite its popularity. Early voting is popular among voters because it provides convenience. In 2008, more than 50 percent of Florida voters took advantage of early voting.
Early voting is particularly important to minorities.
In 2008, nearly 54 percent of African-Americans voters cast ballots at early voting sites and accounted for roughly 22 percent of the daily turnout despite representing only 13.1 percent of registered voters.
During the debate over the law, Florida legislators claimed that while it cuts back the number of days for early voting from 14 to eight, the total number of hours that sites would be open would remain the same. However, as early voting started this week for the Republican primary, many counties have cut early voting hours in half — reducing convenience and making it more difficult for working voters or single parents to get to the polls.
Finally, for years Florida had one of the best voting laws on the books when it allowed voters to update their registration at the polls if they moved within the state.
Unfortunately, lawmakers ended this convenience, affecting young adults, jobseekers and those affected by Florida's foreclosure crisis.
Without the ability to update registration at the polls, these voters will have to cast a provisional ballot that has a high likelihood of not being counted.
As Florida and other states adopt restrictive voting legislation, the hearing today is a needed step by our leaders to take a serious look at laws whose main effect will be to suppress turnout on Election Day.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois will chair the hearing. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, an Orlando Democrat who asked for the hearing, will attend.
At a time when there is great cynicism about the political process, the last thing we need is politicians making voting more difficult. The hearings should be a first step to explore the impact of laws that seem to be enacted for partisan gain and to explore ways to protect the right to vote for all eligible voters in Florida and throughout the country.
Robert M. Brandon, a public affairs specialist and lawyer, is the president and co-founder of the Fair Elections Network. He is an expert on the impact of voter suppression laws and has led FELN's work on the issues involved. Brandon also has participated in various training, panel discussions and congressional briefings.