Florida election reform on hold
By ALISA ULFERTS
© St. Petersburg Times,
TALLAHASSEE -- The U.S. Justice Department has temporarily blocked parts of Florida's new elections law and wants the state to prove the changes won't create more obstacles for minority voters.
In a letter sent Friday, the Justice Department asked Florida to explain the law's statewide voter registration database and a requirement that voters' responsibilities be posted at each precinct.
The department also raised questions about a part of the law that would give voters a chance to cast a provisional ballot if there are problems with their registration on Election Day. And they want to know what efforts were made to hear from minority voters as state officials shaped the new law that the Legislature passed last spring.
Joseph D. Rich, acting chief of the Justice Department's voting section, wrote that an earlier letter from Florida describing the new law was "insufficient to enable us to determine that these changes do not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color or membership in a language minority group."
The practical effect of the letter could be to slow the adoption of a statewide voter registration list, which must be in place by June. Some elections officials were already concerned about the difficulty of compiling the statewide list and weeding out felons and other disqualified voters.
The letter gives Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth 60 days to respond, after which the Justice Department has another 60 days to approve the changes. In the meantime, state elections officials said they will proceed with putting in place the changes in the law that are not under federal scrutiny.
The signature element of the new law -- updated voting machines in most counties -- isn't affected by the Justice Department letter.
"We can start with the planning and the design and putting the project together," said Clay Roberts, head of the state Division of Elections, referring to the planned statewide voter registration database.
"What we can't do is anything that would affect the rights of the voters," such as take names of disqualified voters off that list, Roberts said.
The questions in the Justice Department's letter echo those the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida raised in a federal lawsuit it filed last week in Miami. The group compared the responsibilities' reminder to "study and know candidates and issues" to literacy tests that were used in past generations to prevent African-Americans from voting.
"We are heartened by the fact that the Department of Justice is taking our concerns seriously," said JoNel Newman, attorney in the ACLU lawsuit and co-director of that group's Florida Equal Voting Rights Project.
"We are certain that with more information, (Justice) officials will reach the same conclusion that we have -- that some of these electoral reforms push minority voters back into the past rather than moving us all into the future." But state officials seem largely unconcerned and stress that the letter simply asks for documentation.
"All they are saying is we want additional information with respect to these parts," said George Waas, the assistant attorney general handling the issue. Although the state is barred from enacting the changes until the Justice Department is satisfied, Waas said the request itself is not unusual.
"It is a major piece of legislation, and they want to satisfy themselves that it's on the up and up. . . . They're not blocking it," Waas said.
The Justice Department must approve changes in election law because five Florida counties had a history of discrimination against minority voters: Hillsborough, Hendry, Hardee, Collier and Monroe. The Justice Department has asked questions about changes in election law at least twice before, the most recent coming in 1998.
Florida's law was a direct result of last year's disputed presidential election. Along with problems with voting machines, many elderly or minority voters complained that their ballots had been invalidated or that they had been turned away from the polls.
Gov. Jeb Bush named a task force that recommended many of the changes, and the state Legislature followed up with the law.
The election reform law included provisions for buying new election equipment, spelled out when and how absentee ballots are counted, revised ballot recount procedures and provided money for voter education.
One of the key changes is the creation of a new statewide voter registration database.
Before the November election, the state distributed a list generated by a private consultant that included the names of thousands of felons whom local elections supervisors were to remove from the voter rolls. Some county elections supervisors used only parts of the list or ignored it after finding numerous errors. (Florida is one of only nine states that deny felons the right to vote.)
Justice Department officials want to know how the state is determing eligibility to vote and what role local elections officials will have in making the call on Election Day.
The same goes for provisional ballots, which, under the new law, voters can fill out if they say they are registered to vote but don't appear on the rolls. If they are later found to be eligible, the ballot is counted. If they are found to be ineligible to vote, the ballot is discarded.
And, because of the past history of discrimination in some Florida counties, Justice Department officials want to know what, if anything, was done to hear from minorities on the election changes.
Mark Pritchett, who directed the now-disbanded task force on election reform, said an additional public hearing was scheduled in Jacksonville at the request of some task force members.
The task force picked Jacksonville because of its demographic makeup and because of early evidence that disproportionate numbers of people had been turned away from the polls during the November election, Pritchett said.
"We had a pretty good turnout," Pritchett said. The task force then passed on its recommendations, which Pritchett said included the rights and responsibilities list, to legislators.
Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, chaired the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee. Posey said he couldn't recall a specific attempt to gain minority input but said he's confident legislators got that perspective.
"We got input from everyone from every sector you can imagine," Posey said. He criticized the "empty rhetoric" he said the ACLU used in its lawsuit, but added he was neither surprised nor worried about the Department of Justice's interest in the law.
But Rep. Chris Smith, an African-American Democrat from Fort Lauderdale, said he's glad the Justice Department is reviewing the parts of the law the ACLU found questionable. Although he supports the law, he said he finds parts of it, such as the list of voters' responsibilities, troubling.
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