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Democracy under Attack in Florida

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There’s been a frenzy of activity in the Florida legislature of late.  In week seven of this nine-week session, sweeping legislation was introduced in both houses with little fanfare, and Republican lawmakers discouraging debate or public input. A Gainesville Sun editorial summed it up: “Florida’s lawmakers should be making voting easier and the elections process more transparent. Instead, they have produced a so-called reform that fails on all counts.”

Despite the short notice, 30 organizations - including the NAACP, AFL-CIO, AARP, the ACLU, and League of Women Voters, as well as voting rights groups - have mobilized to oppose this bill. In a rare show of agreement, the state’s newspapers roundly condemned the legislation and the lawmakers’ maneuvers:  “GOP power grab” (St. Petersburg Times), “Hijacking democracy” (Florida Today), “Assault on voting” (Orlando Sentinel),  “a flagrant example of power politics at its worst” (Miami Herald). Even The Palm Beach Post weighed in belatedly with a scathing attack.  Outside the Sunshine State, The New York Times chimed in with its editorial titled “Suppressing the Vote in Florida”.  There are so many objectionable provisions, it’s hard to find the space to list them all. Susan Pynchon, executive director of Florida Fair Elections Coalition,  has written a synopsis worth reading.

What’s going on down there?

Ion Sancho has agreed to guide us through the maze that is politics in the Sunshine State. Supervisor of Elections in Leon County for the last twenty years, he is well-respected by his constituents and the election integrity movement as one elected official who takes his responsibilities seriously.

Mr. Sancho finds it ironic that the leadership in the Florida legislature chose now to introduce sweeping changes to local election law when 2008 was “the election we got right, with the smallest amount of problems and disenfranchised voters.” All of this occurred in an election featuring the largest voter turnout in years.  In Florida, political power resides in the state legislators, who  “rule the roost”. The Secretary of State is a partisan appointee of the governor. And Crist is viewed by Republicans in the state house as nothing more than a RINO (Republican in name only) with aspirations for a US Senate seat.  He has the power to veto this legislation, but no one wants to count on that last resort.  There is just too much at stake.

Critics object to both the content of the legislation as well as the sneaky, heavy-handed way it is being rammed through the legislative process. Citizens who traveled to Tallahassee were allowed thirty seconds each to voice their concerns.  Democratic lawmakers in the House Committee scarcely fared better - they reportedly got a total of three minutes to offer input on this bill.

There was such a deluge of public criticism that the state website was down for a while.  More than 100 amendments have been offered by lawmakers scrambling to rescue the “election reform” legislation which Sancho calls the Voter Suppression Act of 2009.

Here is just one of Sancho’s concrete examples of how this proposed legislation could cause chaos and massive disenfranchisement.  Right now, the state allows election officials insufficient time - only two days - to count all provisional ballots. Last November, Leon County had 728 of them.  Election officials scrambled to get them all counted within the allotted timeframe; Sancho and staff found themselves emailing the results in just under the wire. 

The new legislation - SB 956 and H 7149 - would result in the much wider use of provisional ballots.  The projection for Leon County is around 18,000. This is twenty-five times the number of provisional ballots in the 2008 election which Sancho's team barely had time to count.  And the legislators have not given election officials any more time to process these mountains of provisional ballots.  It’s clearly a recipe for disaster.

Go to youTube for Sancho’s easy to understand tutorial on why this legislation is major bad news. That is, for anyone other than Republican lawmakers, who are trying to hang onto their power.  While Republicans make up only 37% of the registered voters in the Sunshine State, they control 2/3 of the seats in the Florida House and Senate.

Sancho urges anyone with an agenda for change - whether it is the environment, jobs, education, or something else - to clearly understand that  “none of their issues will ever pass” without fair, transparent elections.  

If this bill is going to be passed, it will happen by Friday, May 1, which marks the end of this legislative session.  There have been some reports that Republicans have given up their efforts for now.  Kindra Muntz, president of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE), greets this news with skepticism.  She urges concerned citizens not to  let their guard down:  “It aint over until it’s over.” Ion Sancho agrees. Keep the pressure on.  He suggests that everyone contact State Senate President Atwater and ask him “why are you doing this to the Florida voters?”

“Legislators should kill this embarrassing and self-serving piece of mischief that only disenfranchises voters and enriches incumbent politicians” says a Gainesville Sun editorial. The term “mischief” makes Republican actions seem more like a fraternity prank, while the ramifications of this legislation are grave for all Florida voters and democracy itself.  

What you can do about it

Refuse to shut up or be shut out.  Let your voice be heard now, while it still counts. Tell Florida officials how mad you are about this. 

Florida residents:  
Contact Senate President Jeff Atwater  and election officials from every corner of the state. Tell them to demonstrate their concern for their constituents by just saying “no” to this horrific bill, SB 956 and H 7149.

Find your Florida Senator here.
Find your Florida State Rep. here.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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