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Might as well set up voting booths in court

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee bureau chief
Published October 13, 2007


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The Legislature's endless tinkering with Florida's voting machinery guarantees two things: constant controversy over the election laws and plenty of work for lawyers.

The latest development came this week in a 3-year-old lawsuit filed by the AFL-CIO and other unions that are busy seeking to expand the pool of Democratic voters in the nation's biggest swing state.

The unions challenged a state law that prevents election supervisors from allowing voters to fix mistakes on their registration forms less than 29 days before an election. The law says if the form doesn't exactly match other database information, a person can't vote.

The Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C., civil rights group that represents the unions, targeted five counties where it claims there's a history of problems with voters facing barriers to registering to vote.

The five counties, facing costly and drawn-out litigation, signed stipulations agreeing to a so-called grace period if the law is changed by the Legislature or struck down by a federal judge when the case is tried early next year.

"At some point you've got to bring closure," said Bill Cowles, Orange County's election supervisor, who has spent more than $100,000 on outside legal fees. "They're picking on the counties, when we're just the end users."

The other targeted counties were Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Duval.

"I would say there's a pattern of efforts in Florida - and I won't say why - to restrict the franchise," said Elizabeth Westfall, a senior attorney for the Advancement Project. "Florida, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to keep these people off the rolls."

Left to defend the law is Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who wishes the five counties had not thrown in the towel.

"I'm disappointed," Browning said. "They've set the precedent now for the rest of the state."

What rankles Browning the most is the persistent charge that he and the Republican political leadership of the state are determined to make it as difficult as possible for people to vote.

"I don't care if you're Democrat, Republican or Socialist," Browning said. "I think you're entitled to register. I think you're entitled to vote. But there has to be a system in place so as to ensure that the integrity of the system is preserved."

The answer, he said, is for a voter to submit a provisional ballot on Election Day while the mistake on a registration application is resolved.

The lawsuit over the grace period is set for trial in Miami in February before U.S. District Judge Lawrence King with Browning the only remaining defendant. "The system of voter registration deserves to be defended," said Browning, who for 26 years was Pasco County supervisor of elections.

This case is one of three suits involving the election system still working its way through the courts.

The state is appealing a lower-court ruling that struck down a state law that imposed huge fines on third parties, like the League of Women Voters, that miss deadlines for submitting voter registration forms.

In the third case, the Advancement Project and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's law school are challenging the Florida system that requires an exact database match of driver's license or Social Security numbers with the numbers on the voter form.

Voting rights groups say the requirement unfairly targets Hispanics and Haitians. Browning says the law works to verify the accuracy of the voter file and to prevent fraud at the polls.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850-224-7263.

[Last modified October 13, 2007, 00:17:34]


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