Florida GOP's electoral reform sparks ire, could add hurdle for Obama in '12

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) could face a rebellion from local elections officials, as well as lawsuits over a controversial law that tightened restrictions on voter registration.

A sweeping bill passed by the GOP-controlled State Legislature and signed recently by Scott makes it harder for third-party groups such as unions and the League of Women Voters to launch voter registration drives.

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Critics say the law, which also cuts the number of days for early voting, will hinder the ability of students, African-Americans and Hispanics to cast their ballots. These groups traditionally favor Democrats, which could mean the law will undercut President Obama's reelection effort in the Sunshine State.

"This law has created, really, a draconian, very broad, ambiguous bureaucracy that is going to make it impossible for volunteers to continue our voter registration work," said Deirdre Macnab, who heads the Florida branch of the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan group that advocates for political participation.

"Something that's as American as apple pie," Macnab said in reference to voter registration drives, "is now going to be encumbered with so much red tape and regulation, and the potential for civil charges from the attorney general, that it is going to have a really vast impact on the registration of new voters."

Under the new law, volunteers must return any voter registration cards they collect to elections officials within 48 hours or face a fine. The League of Women Voters has conducted registration drives in Florida for 72 years, said Macnab. "Upon implementation of this law, we will cease doing voter registration in the state of Florida."

The law also prevents voters from making outside-of-county address changes at the polls. They can cast a provisional ballot in those instances, although those ballots can be challenged. Some experts believe that portion of the law will hinder students, who went overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008, from voting. The bill also cuts the early voting window from 14 days to eight, though it extends the hours during those eight days. 

Lee Rowland, an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice who specializes in voters'-rights cases, called the law "incredibly restrictive" and noted her group has successfully sued Florida twice before to stop similar laws from going into effect. 

Under this new law, Rowland said, "you get a smaller, more restrictive electorate."

She added in an email: "We are consulting with our clients and assessing all available next steps to protect voting rights in Florida, including litigation if necessary."

The League of Women Voters is also considering suing the state, according to Macnab. 

Observers say the law is directed at groups such as the now defunct-ACORN, which boasted of registering some 150,000 voters in Florida in 2008. 

Some experts have questioned that figure, but Republicans took it seriously and have said the new law was necessary to cut down on voter fraud. 

"The fact is there’s a lot of bad actors out there and there’s an opportunity currently to game the system," state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla (R) told the Orlando Sentinel earlier this month after the bill passed the state Senate.

Obama bested Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in Florida in 2008 by fewer than 250,000 votes. While the state's electoral votes wound up as the icing on the cake of Obama’s landslide victory, they could prove crucial in 2012.

Meanwhile, the elections supervisor in Scott's home county was one of five local officials who said they wouldn't implement the law. Collier County Elections Supervisor Jennifer Edwards wrote to Scott last week saying she was waiting on the Department of Justice's “preclearance" before implementing the changes.

Collier is one of five counties in Florida governed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which means it needs the Justice Department's approval before it makes changes to any voting laws. Supervisors from Hillsborough, Monroe, Hendry and Hardee counties — the other four governed by the act because of a history of discrimination — joined Edwards in refusing to implement the law.

Chris Cate, a Florida Division of Elections spokesman, told the St. Petersburg Times that those counties were already set to get permission to delay implementing the new procedures. 

The Justice Department must render a decision on the voting changes within 60 days.

While a potential legal battle brews over the reforms, Steve Schale, a Florida-based Democratic consultant, sought to tamp down suggestions the law would be a disaster for his party.  

The new procedures will add a layer of complication but not eliminate registration drives, said Schale, who was the Obama campaign's 2008 state director. 

"Just because they make it harder to register people to vote, doesn't mean you have to stop registering voters. Republicans and Democrats, if they want to win Florida in 2012, they're going to have to grow the size of their base. I don't think it changes the blocking and tackling to get to 50 percent-plus-one."

The new law will make registering voters more expensive, he predicted. 

"You’re going to have to spend a lot more money on compliance and tracking things."


— Updated at 8:50 p.m.