By The Associated Press, Herald-Tribune
A new voting law passed by the Republican controlled Florida Legislature last year will suppress the turnout of Democratic voters in the critical swing state, according to election experts and critics who testified in a congressional hearing Friday.
Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida and Dick Durbin of Illinois conducted the congressional field hearing to examine the effects of the law, which Republicans contended would stem voter fraud. Critics argue that it was designed to suppress voting by minorities, the elderly and young people who tend to vote Democratic.
Testimony centered on the sections of the law that cut the number of early voting days, put new restrictions on organizations that conduct voter registration drives, required voters who change out-of-county addresses at the polls on Election Day to cast provisional ballots, and reduced the shelf life of citizen initiative petition signatures from four to two years.
Lawsuits have been filed challenging those elements of the law, which are also being reviewed by a three-judge U.S. District Court panel in Washington.
“The rule of law has been assaulted in this state by this election law under the pretense of cutting down on election fraud,” Nelson said Friday.
Nearly 200 people attended the hearing in a Hillsborough County courtroom, with another 200 in a nearby room watching on closed-circuit TV. Groups protested the law in sidewalk demonstrations outside.
University of Florida political scientist Dan Smith testified that cutting the days for early voting suppressed turnout by blacks and Hispanics because those groups voted early at a higher percentage than other groups.
Members of black and Hispanic advocacy groups said the law makes it harder for minority voters to register to vote.
“African-Americans rely on third party registration drives,” testified Daryl D. Parks, president of the National Bar Association, the oldest and largest organization of black attorneys and judges in the world. “African-Americans are more than twice as likely to register to vote via private drives.”
But Mike Ertel, the Republican elections supervisor in Seminole County, said requiring provisional ballots for voters who move across county lines is vital to ensure that they vote only once. He accused critics “fear-mongering.”
“The purpose of today was to ask folks to have a rational discussion about the bill,” Ertel said. “What’s needed is for people to start talking about it rationally.”