TALLAHASSEE - In the latest triumph of the conservative agenda, the Florida House has approved an overhaul of the state's elections law that opponents call an effort at suppressing voting.
The 157-page bill (HB 1355) passed by a party-line vote of 79-37 on Thursday.
The measure's Republican backers - including sponsor Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala - say the bill will help tamp down future voter fraud.
State Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, listed many of the bill's changes during debate, including a requirement that third-party voter-sign up groups register with the state.
After each one, he said, "That doesn't seem harmful to democracy or suppressing voting."
Democratic critics, though showing some fatigue, fought the bill down to their last minute of debate. A few even suggested that some of the bill's provisions were unconstitutional because they tend to deny voting rights.
"We are fixing something that doesn't need to be fixed," said state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. "This is a bad bill; it sets bad precedent and sets bad policy."
The bill's passage follows a string of Republican-led victories this legislative session, including overhauling the state's courts system, easing growth management laws and weakening public employee unions.
Among its many provisions, as the bill now stands, it:
- Requires voter-registration groups, such as the League of Women Voters, to register with the state, file regular reports and turn in completed voter-registration forms within 48 hours or face a $50 fine for each late form.
The league's state leader this week said her group may suspend its voter registration efforts if the measure becomes law.
"Upending years of progress in Florida's voting will not and should not be tolerated by voters," said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.
- Forces some voters to use provisional ballots instead of regular ballots if they want to update their name or address in voting records at the polling place.
A provisional ballot requires a person to later offer evidence of his or her eligibility to vote. Democrats voiced concerns that a majority of provisional ballots are thrown out every election; Republicans said the provision would prevent people from voting more than once.
- Prohibits a person from running for local office as a candidate of a political party if they switched political parties in the last year.
- Allows groups to run opinion polls for people who are considering running for office. Such polls are counted as campaign contributions only if the person actually becomes a candidate.
- Requires the governor-appointed Secretary of State, the state's chief election officer, to provide "direction and opinions" to the elected county elections supervisors.
- Voids an absentee ballot if the signature on the voter's certificate doesn't match the signature on record.
- Prohibits approaching anyone who is waiting in line to vote and giving that person voting advice.
- Creates a panel to fix the date for the state's presidential primary.
Opponents, mainly Democrats, say Florida should just comply with rules agreed to by the national Democratic and Republican parties giving Florida a March primary date.
But Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Rick Scott have been at odds with their own national party by insisting on an earlier date, Jan. 31, which would make it first.
They argue Florida deserves a more prominent position in the nominating process because it's the largest among the expected swing states in the 2012 election.
Both national parties, as they did in 2008, are threatening to take away some or all of Florida's convention delegates if the state fails to abide by the agreed-upon calendar, which starts with caucuses and primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina between Feb. 1 and March 5.
A companion (SB 2086) to the House bill is in the Senate.