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Winter Park / Maitland Observer Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012 9 years ago

Staff opinion: New Florida voter laws don't have equal impact

One of the major changes Florida voters will see this year is their early voting time period shrunk from 14 to eight days.

Early voting is awesome. It reduces lines on Election Day, it allows for more flexibility for those of us who can’t sneak away from work or other responsibilities on a Tuesday and it generally promotes the democratic process.

Early voting has also grown wildly popular with about a dozen states expanding the time frame for these early bird voters in the last decade. And more people are taking advantage. According to findings by the Associated Press, early voters increased from 22 percent in 2004 to 34 percent in 2008.

Now about a half dozen states, including Florida, have passed laws that seek inexplicably to reverse that trend.

One of the major changes Florida voters will see this year is their early voting time period shrunk from 14 to eight days. Early voting starts this Saturday. Voting is also canceled the Sunday before Election Day.

Within the broadest of terms these changes will affect all voters identically, and that’s an easy talking point to stick to. In theory, everybody will have the same significantly reduced opportunity to go to the polls.

In practice, the story changes dramatically. The numbers have already told us what will happen before the laws’ reach becomes more tangible to the voters come Election Day.

Opponents to these laws say it disenfranchises Democrats, among whom early voting is very popular. More than 3.3 million Democrats in the state flocked to the polls prior to Election Day during the 2008 presidential election compared to 810,666 Florida Republicans, a USA Today report stated.

Opponents also said these laws are meant to keep minorities, the elderly and student voters, who are also known to be fans of early voting, from the polls. More than half of blacks in Florida cast their votes early in 2008. Given the data at hand, the effect of these laws, whether intended or otherwise, is obvious. To a Republican-dominated legislature, the issue becomes terrifyingly black and white. If you give voters increased, but equal, access to the polls, more Democrats than Republicans will take advantage of that improved access. Reduce opportunities to vote, and Democrats will stay away from the polls more disproportionately than Republican voters.

Of course the law isn’t banishing early voting, it’s cutting it down from two weeks to one, still giving people plenty of time to get to the polls, say proponents of the new laws. Furthermore, proponents say cutting early voting down will also save the state money. And what government couldn’t use more money in its coffers?

Other laws that passed include a reduction in the time allotted for third-party groups, like the ones who sit outside of retailers encouraging people to register to vote, to 48 hours to turn in registration. A teacher in New Smyrna Beach could already be in hot water after turning in late registrations for some of her students.

Several efforts are under way to investigate these laws and the real motivating factors behind them and there are movements in Florida and throughout the country aimed at repealing these laws. Obama’s campaign, Organizing for America, helped drive a petition that collected enough signatures to get a repeal petition on Ohio’s November ballot and the campaign is starting similar efforts in other states.

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson announced earlier this month that he’s asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the laws.

Some digging should also be done to find out how much money our government stands to save by limiting early voting. If it’s substantial, it poses the question: Is a week versus two really so bad? There are 15 states in this country that don’t allow early voting at all. But that’s a group of late adopters that we should all see as behind the curve, not ahead of it.

Yes, a week of early voting still provides ample time to cast a vote, no matter your race, creed or place in the world. But the fact that there’s any extra time to vote left after those laws are finished hacking away at it is a poor consolation for voters on the losing side of what has become a sadly partisan issue. Increasing Florida’s abysmal voter turnout rates shouldn’t be a partisan fight. But that’s exactly what’s happening.

Given the obvious nature of the laws’ effect, those who drafted them already have put a finer point on these fractured politics for us: Those who disagree with the current Legislature should have less of a chance to say so. And now that forcibly silenced voice is no longer a political ideology; it’s the law.

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