TALLAHASSEE – With an eye toward the fall elections, Florida Democrats are hoping to build pressure on the Republican-controlled Legislature to adopt tougher voter-protections for minorities despite a sweeping elections reform enacted last year.
Florida’s voting laws have seen a major overhaul since the problem-plagued 2012 presidential election, partly thanks to court-rulings that have halted a voter “purge” review of the legality of registered voters and the about-face the Legislature took in 2013 to expand early-voting.
But at the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court last summer struck down provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act which served to protect minority voters from major changes in Florida – specifically, removing the requirement that changes get “pre-cleared” by the federal Justice Department before taking effect.
Democratic lawmakers have two bills filed to push for broader voting-rights, but neither is making any progress at mid-point of the 60-day session – gridlock which prompted them to schedule a Capitol press conference with voting-rights groups Tuesday.
“These bills … are obviously not a priority of leadership,” said Rep. Reggie Fullwood, D-Jacksonville, who is pushing HB 1079/SB 1246 along with Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando.
The bill would require Florida’s attorney general to pre-clear changes to voting laws that affect urban populations and minorities. So far, the bill hasn’t had a hearing scheduled, and Fullwood said that was because GOP leadership wanted to see what effects the 2013 reforms have this election cycle.
“Voters of color are more vulnerable than ever,” Thompson said.
Last year, the Legislature reversed changes it had made in 2011 shortening early voting from two weeks to eight days, and expanded the types of public facilities which could be used for early voting locations.
But Democrats wanted even wider availability of so-called “convenience voting” options on college campuses and other places easier to access for urban, lower-income voters.
This session, they are also sponsoring a bill (HB 1073/ SB 1132) which would give any legal citizen who is denied the ability to vote in an election an explicit claim to file in court to grant access.
“Those bills we passed last year were less than perfect,” said Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, one of the bill sponsors along with Rep. Victor Torres, D-Orlando.
Asked if the bills – which stand very little chance of passing this session – were being used as political props to help mobilize voters for the fall mid-term elections, the lawmakers didn’t shy from the implication.
“We certainly realize that 2014 is an election year. That's what makes these bills all the more urgent, to make sure we don't have the long lines, to make sure you know where you can leave an absentee ballot," Thompson said, referencing this year's Pinellas County showdown with the state over drop-off sites.
Democrats were still basking in one recent win. Last week, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled Florida had violated federal law when the Department of State in 2012 tried to identify and remove non-citizens from the voting rolls within the 90-day window of the presidential election.
That was in violation of the federal law prohibiting such systemic activities. The ruling also has immediate consequences, since Secretary of State Ken Detzner had announced his intention to re-launch the voter-verification effort.
"We have to say 'hey, I told you so,' and this is one of those 'told you so' moments," Braynon said.
Detzner had already announced his office was scrapping “Project Integrity” until at least 2015, and earlier Tuesday he pointed to a Pew report on Florida’s 2012 election performance as evidence that last year’s reforms had been appropriate.
“The previous practices reviewed in the report no longer reflect today’s voting laws because of last year’s reforms- and we will continue to work with PEW as they develop their next report,” Detzner said in a statement.
“This 2012 report validates the actions we took in working with Supervisors of Elections and the Legislature last year that created an historic amount of early voting locations and more voting hours than ever before. We addressed many of the topic areas assessed in the report with HB 7013, which expanded voter access and transparency.”Copyright © 2015, CT Now