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Changes to Florida Voting Laws - 2011 Extensive Voting Modification Legislation

In June 2011, almost two years before the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, Governor Rick Scott of Florida signed new extensive voting modification legislation that reduced early voting and made it more difficult for groups that assisted new voters in the registration process to help them sign up without the groups facing an enormous amount of procedural difficulties and even the possibility of the groups facing prosecution.

The new law is broken down into four provisions. The first reduces the amount of early voting days before an election is to be held. The second, adds new restrictions on third-party voter registration efforts, the third shortens the four year "shelf life" of signatures collected for ballot initiatives which was previously struck down in 2009 in a 4-2 vote by the Florida Supreme Court. The four-year period was intended to give voters time to reconsider their support for ballot proposals. The final provision stops voters who have moved within the state to submit the change of their new legal address at the polls on Election Day.

The first part of the new law cuts early voting days in half, from more than two weeks (15 days) prior to an election, to a meager eight day period. It also stops residents that have moved between counties within the state to bring documentation of their new addresses to the polls for update on the day of an election.

The part of the legislation regarding the assistance of groups supporting third-party voter registration drives was later struck down by a federal judge in August, a few months after the commencement of the law. The judge stated that the new law's limits of voter registration were "harsh and impractical."

Voter's rights groups charged that the new law is a flagrant effort to suppress voting for certain groups but proponents of the law insist that it will prevent voter fraud.

In a statement released by Mickey Cantor, president of the League of Women Voters, Cantor heatedly decreed "This is a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. There is no voter fraud in Florida." After more than seventy years of assisting individuals register to vote, the non-partisan organization publicized that they would no longer assist persons throughout the state in this practice. He stressed that this was due to the possibility of the new law opening up their volunteers to unreasonable fines; if filled-out registration forms weren't returned within a timeframe of forty-eight hours to the office of the supervisor of elections. Before the passage of the new law, the volunteers had 10 days to complete and return the paperwork.

After signing the bill, the Governor hadn't originally publicly commented regarding his decision but a member from his administration, Secretary of State Kurt Browning commented that "I believe when you start looking at the details of the bill, that it doesn't negatively impact Florida voters. And where the impact is, I think it's justified." The new law went into effect immediately upon the Governor's signature.

The Governor signed the bill despite a deluge of emails and phone calls urging him not to, as the bill's opponents asserted that it was a measured endeavor to reduce voter turnout among minority and younger voters, the elderly, as well as the poor who have a tendency to vote for Democratic candidates.

The Secretary of State defended the forty-eight hour requirement. The law is "not onerous" and can work in favor of a first-time voter. It can prevent them from being disenfranchised due to botched paperwork. "We're not ogres," said Browning. "We certainly are not in the business of trying to catch people committing a crime. Our overall concern continues to be that individuals or groups are turning the forms in" on a timely basis.

Deirdre Macnab, the Florida chapter's president of the League of Women Voters disagreed. She commented that "The more we hear about everyday people falling afoul of this law, the more it becomes obvious that this law is impossible to comply with." The League had filed a law suit to block the forty-eight hour rule and had suspended all voter registration efforts in Florida after the law went into effect, fearful that the monetary penalties could bankrupt the group.

"It's a bad bill. It's going to hurt voters and make it harder to vote" claimed Brad Ashwell of the Florida Public Interest Research Group. Regarding the provision referencing people who have moved between counties, he went on to explain that the law will heighten the possibility that an individual's vote won't be counted. In this situation they will now be allotted a provisional ballot that in many occasions are not counted at all. The practice of updating current change of addresses at the polls was formerly an enduring policy.

Although this legislation was proposed and sanctioned prior to the Supreme Court ruling took place, Florida, as a state was not considered a "covered" jurisdiction subject to Section 5 preclearance at the time of the law's enactment. Within the state, only Hillsborough, Collier, Hendry, Monroe, and Hardy counties fell into that category which impeded the new reforms from going into effect at that time.

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