Democratic Senators hear criticism of Florida's elections law

Share on Nextdoor

Another provision of the new law affects citizens who have moved to a different county. If they do not inform their elections supervisor about the move before Election Day, the law only allows them to vote provisionally — which means their votes will not be counted on election night and must be reviewed by the county canvassing board to determine if they are legitimate.

Although Smith reported that some counties in Florida in 2008 counted all provisional ballots, he also said that in Osceola County, only 6 percent of such votes were considered valid, and in Seminole County, just 30 percent were deemed good. Smith said the "dirty little secret" in Florida politics is that most provisional ballots don't count.

And he said that where there historically has been fraud in elections, it's been through absentee voting, which in Florida has been mainly the domain of Republicans. The elections bill does nothing to address that form of voting.

Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Michael Ertel was the lone panelist to speak in support of the new law. His testimony was somewhat edgy from the start, as he began by telling Senator Durbin that while people made jokes about Florida elections, they also make jokes about Illinois.

Ertel defended the fact that there is no longer voting on the Sunday before Election Day, stating that only 12 such states allow that in the nation. Contradicting Professor Smith's conclusions, he said that his analysis showed that Sunday was the day that minorities were least likely to go to the polls, and said that the only reason it was popular before was because it was the last day before regular voting.

He also said that there was a significant amount of "fear-mongering" among critics of the legislation.

When Senator Durbin asked Ertel whether the reduction in early voting days would increase or decrease voter participation, he responded that it depended on how one looked at it. The audience laughed.

The energy inside and outside the courthouse was highly charged. An hour before the hearing, demonstrators both for and against the bill held signs and spoke with reporters. Supporters of the legislation included Hillsborough County Tea Party members Sharon Calvert and Karen Jaroch.

Barbara Henderson from Sun City Center held a sign criticizing "Project Vote." But when asked by CL what that actually was, she admitted she didn't know. "I've read about it, but I can't tell you the details about it. But I know that there's voter fraud, I know that Project Vote is helping that situation."

At that news conference before the hearing, members of the ACLU and NAACP and other groups blasted the bill, with several speakers saying the new election laws in Florida and other states were a throwback to Jim Crow laws.

Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida State Conference NAACP and member of the NAACP Board of Directors, said the new law was reminiscent of the kind of things blacks were subjected to before the 1965 Voting Rights Act, such as being asked, "How many bubbles in a bar of soap?"

She said the preponderance of new laws suppressing voter rights is all about the election of a black man in 2008. "The real truth of the matter is that we had thousands and thousands of voters of color go to the polls in 2008. It turned this country on its head. This country… had [no] idea we would ever have an African-American president of the United States… so when they woke up screaming the next morning, they woke up with a plan. And that plan was to… make sure we no longer would have that privilege."

  • The NAACP's Adora Obi Nweze

Florida's controversial elections law is already the subject of two different lawsuits by groups who say it suppresses voting rights, particularly for young and minority voters.

Republicans in the Florida Legislature who passed the law last year said it was needed to prevent voter fraud.

On Friday it was the subject of a nearly two-hour federal hearing in Tampa hosted by Democratic Senators Bill Nelson of Florida and Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. They heard testimony from seven panelists, all but one of whom spoke critically of the legislation. A jam-packed Hillsborough County courthouse was the site of the hearing, with an overflow crowd of another couple hundred watching via closed circuit television on the same floor.

The most powerful critic might have been Ann McFall, the supervisor of elections in Volusia County who is stepping down from office at the end of this year. The bill was passed by state Republicans in Tallahassee and is vehemently opposed by Democrats; McFall is a Republican.

Among the provisions in the new law is one that reduces the early voting days from 14 to 8. Legislators have said this would help local supervisors of elections save money, but McFall said just the opposite would happen. Some workers' 40-hour weeks would now have to be expanded, she said, requiring that they be paid overtime — a cost that would be picked up by taxpayers.

She said that SOE's should be making early voting more convenient, not less, allowing them to vote at community centers, college campuses, YMCA's, malls, churches and storefronts.

University of Florida Political Science Professor Dan Smith provided detailed information from a study of early voting statistics from 2008 in Florida that he compiled with Dartmouth College Professor Michael C. Herron. He reported that the number of black and Latino voters increased dramatically on the Sunday before the general election. Under the new law, there is now no early voting on Sundays.

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.