Scott signs bill that cuts early voting days and adds restrictions

  Florida will have fewer early voting days, and voters will have a harder time updating their registrations at the polls, under a fiercely debated elections bill that Gov. Rick Scott signed into law on Thursday.

The bill, among the most controversial that lawmakers sent to Scott this spring, is largely an attempt to crack down on fraud, according to its Republican sponsors and supporters.

“This bill will go a long way toward protecting the integrity of elections in Florida,” Florida Republican Party chairman Dave Bitner said in a released statement.

But Democrats have assailed it as an exercise in voter suppression — and in particular, the suppression of votes by college students and others who tend largely to vote Democratic.

Scott, who had until Saturday to act on the legislation, released no public statement with the announcement that he had signed it.

Asked about it earlier this week, the governor said, “The things I care about with regard to elections, I want to make sure people have the opportunity to vote. I want people to get out to vote, and I don’t want fraud. So that will sort-of be the filter I use in going through the bill.”

The new law cuts early voting days from 14 to eight, though it allows election supervisors to keep polls open up to 12 hours per day — in other words, the same 96 total hours permitted under current law. Opening the polls for fewer days will save counties money, supporters said.

The law also prevents most voters who have changed their address since the last election from updating their status at the polls. Unless they have moved within the same county, those voters will have to cast provisional ballots, many of which historically have not been included in final election tallies.

The address change restriction is expected to affect university students in particular — a demographic that was key to President Barack Obama’s election in 2008.

Thursday, Secretary of State Kurt Browning said that he is directing all local election canvassing boards to count those provisional ballots unless there is clear evidence of fraud.

The law also targets third-party voter registrations groups, which will now have to register with the state and may be fined $50 for any voter application they fail to turn in within 48 hours of receiving it. Under the old law, such groups had 10 days to turn in applications before being fined.

Earlier this month, the League of Women Voters vowed that it would cease all registration activities in Florida if the bill were to become law, arguing that the new requirements were too burdensome for the nonpartisan volunteer organization.

Thursday, League director Jessica Lowe-Minor said the group had indeed suspended all such actions “and will not continue until the Department of Justice has fully reviewed the law, and until the bill has moved through the full court process, if there is to be a lawsuit.”

The League, which has sued the state successfully in the past to overturn restrictions on third-party voter registration, has not yet decided whether to file suit this time, Lowe-Minor said. If the law ultimately stands, she said, League registrations will likely cease in Florida for good. “We’ll certainly be consulting our attorneys.”

U.S. Department of Justice officials have said they will review the law closely for possible violations of federal voting laws.

The Voting Rights Act requires Florida to submit law changes affecting voting rights for federal approval because of the state’s 20th-century legacy of voter suppression in five counties, including Hillsborough. The new law will not take effect in those counties until federal officials approve it.

Lakeland Republican Seth McKeel, chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, said that the new law “seeks to protect Floridians’ right to vote by ensuring an accountable and transparent process and significantly reducing the potential for voter fraud.”

But while “fraud” was a rallying cry among the new law’s supporters, critics pointed out that little evidence of voter fraud exists in Florida.

“This bill was a solution searching for a problem,” said Brad Ashwell, director of the Florida Public Interest Research Group, arguing that the claims of fraud were disingenuous.

Browning, who called the legislation “a good bill” on Thursday, offered no new evidence of voting fraud, though he said he sided with lawmakers about being proactive, rather than reactive.

Under the old law, he said, “I will tell you … when a voter makes a change of address from one county to another, there is no uniform, methodical process that is employed on Election Day that ensures that a voter has not cast a ballot in another county.”

But Browning did not actually suggest to legislators that they make it harder to change one’s address at the polls.

“It wasn’t one of those issues that rose to the level that we needed to fully address,” he said. “We believe that certainly, counties have procedures in place that address most of those issues. But certainly the Legislature took it upon themselves to say, we believe there’s this problem, this issue, or potential issue. And I think it’s probably important to note, that it’s a potential issue.”

Mike Fasano of New Port Richey was one of two Republican senators who voted against the bill. He had hoped, he said, that Scott might veto the bill, given his public comments about wanting people to vote and protecting their access to the polls.

Fasano, who clashed repeatedly during the spring session with the Senate’s conservative leaders, said that Florida ought to expand early voting and encourage more voter registration activity.

Democrats’ claims about the bill were right, he said. “And I’m a Republican, but believe the only reason this bill was passed was to help one party over another.”