On Thursday, the Florida Legislature declared war on voter registration. Both houses of the legislature passed a bill that takes the state a huge step backwards by making it harder to register voters, prohibiting registered voters who move before an election from updating their address at the polls, and greatly reducing early voting opportunities.
The burdens of Florida’s misguided elections bill will fall disproportionately on the shoulders of low-income and minority voters, renters, and students: eligible voters that already face the biggest hurdles to vote. And the groups that try to register these voters, from student organizers to the League of Women Voters, will be penalized for their attempts to bring more eligible citizens into our democracy.
Making Voter Registration Harder
Remember when church groups or boy scout troops could sign up new voters on a card table outside the supermarket? That civic participation will be a thing of the past if Florida lawmakers have their way. Registration groups will now have to pre-register every single volunteer or employee and turn in every registration form they get within 48 hours. And they’ll have to sign on to a new electronic database the state will set up to ensure that every voter registration group regularly submits updates on every registration card that every volunteer distributed at every registration drive they organized.
Pre-registration means a student council member can’t swap in to take a turn to pass out registration forms without first signing a sworn affidavit, under penalty of perjury, with the state. The unbelievably tight turnaround time means that registration groups will be unable to follow up with voters who leave forms incomplete, and will incur high fines for going a minute over the deadline.
Registration groups have already started to indicate that they may just close up shop in Florida because they simply can’t navigate the onerous new burdens on registration drives. Who ends up getting hurt? Voters who these drives would otherwise register – and studies show that African-American and Latino voters are more than twice as likely to register in these drives.
Making Voting Harder
In addition, Florida is making it harder for voters who move to cast a ballot. Florida has a longstanding policy permitting voters who have changed their address before an election to update their new address at the polls on Election Day, where the voters’ existing registrations are carefully cross-checked in a state database before the voters are given a ballot. This bill eliminates that right, so that voters who move between Florida’s 67 counties will not have their vote counted.
To add insult to injury, the bill also chops in half the number of days when Floridians can vote by reducing early voting days from two weeks to one. Since its adoption, Florida’s early voting has been a resounding success with both elections officials and voters. Early voting periods have helped to spread out the crush of votes that election officials have to process, making electoral rhythms more manageable. Voters who in the past stood in long lines at voting precincts have experienced some relief; now, they can expect those lines to balloon again.
Even worse, this bill doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It follows closely on the Florida Clemency Board’s vote last month to revoke past Governor Crist’s reforms restoring the right to vote to nonviolent offenders who had paid their debt to society. The Board’s new policy creates a second class of up to a million Floridians with past criminal convictions who are working and living in their communities but have no voice in their democracy. A full quarter of these individuals are African-American.
Penalizing Civic Engagement
Rather than making it more convenient for eligible voters to cast a ballot, Florida has instead erected new barriers to the voting booth. If and when Governor Scott signs this bill, Florida will rise to the head of the class when it comes to penalizing civic engagement. Florida politicians seem to believe that voting is a privilege reserved for the few – not for students, minority voters, or voters who move. Our nation has taken long strides to expand the franchise and eliminate the shadows of Jim Crow; unfortunately, Florida has just taken a giant – and ugly – step backwards.