bill_nelson_web.jpgTAMPA (AP) — A new voting law passed by the Republican controlled Florida Legislature last year will suppress the turnout of Democratic voters in the critical swing state, according to election experts and critics who testified at a congressional hearing Friday.

Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida and Dick Durbin of Illinois conducted the congressional field hearing to examine the effects of the law which Republicans contended would stem voter fraud. Critics argue that it was designed to suppress voting by minorities, the elderly and young people who tend to vote Democratic.

Testimony centered on the sections of the law that cut the number of early voting days, put new restrictions on organizations that conduct voter registration drives, require voters who change out-of-county addresses at the polls on Election Day to cast provisional ballots and reduce the shelf life of citizen initiative petition signatures from four to two years.

Lawsuits have been filed challenging those elements of the law which are also being reviewed by a three-judge U.S. District Court panel in Washington.

“The rule of law has been assaulted in this state by this election law under the pretense of cutting down on election fraud,” Nelson said Friday.

Nearly 200 people attended the hearing in a Hillsborough County courtroom, with another 200 in a nearby room watching on closed-circuit TV. Groups protested the law in sidewalk demonstrations outside.

University of Florida political scientist Dan Smith testified that cutting the days for early voting suppressed turnout by blacks and Hispanics because those groups voted early at a higher percentage than other groups.

Members of black and Hispanic advocacy groups said the law made it harder for minority voters to register to vote.

“African Americans rely on third party registration drives,” testified Daryl D. Parks, president of the National Bar Association, the oldest and largest organization of black attorneys and judges in the world. “African Americans are more than twice as likely to register to vote via private drives.”

Mike Ertel, the Republican elections supervisor in Seminole County, said requiring provisional ballots for voters who move across county lines is vital to ensure that they vote only once. He accused critic “fear-mongering.”

“The purpose of today was to ask folks to have a rational discussion about the bill,” Ertel said. “What's needed is for people to start talking about it rationally.”

A day earlier, in Washington, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department opened a record number of more than 100 new investigations into possible voting rights discrimination across the country last year.

During an appearance at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Holder praised the federal government's aggressive enforcement efforts while vowing to defend a landmark voting rights law that is increasingly under attack in this presidential election year.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires all or parts of 16 states, including Florida, to obtain advance approval from either the Justice Department's civil rights division or a federal court in Washington before carrying out changes in elections.

Despite congressional reauthorization in 2006 of Section 5 for 25 years, its future has come under constitutional challenges in federal courts, including in Florida.

As of two weeks ago, there were 833 Section 5 submissions for proposed electoral changes awaiting approval at the Justice Department from state, county and local units of government.

The challenges to Section 5's constitutionality followed a 2009 Supreme Court opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts which seemed to raise doubts about whether the provision was still needed.

Section 5 “imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs,” Roberts wrote. “Today, the registration gap between white and black voters is in single digits” in the states covered by the act's preclearance provision and “in some of those states, blacks now register and vote at higher rates than whites.”

The stakes would be enormous if the Supreme Court got involved.

In 2006, Congress held hearings and created a 15,000-page record to justify renewing Section 5. Congress found that the Justice Department protected the interests of some 663,503 minority voters from 2000 to May 2006 by refusing to approve changes in political boundaries drawn by states, counties and local units of government.

Photo: Bill Nelson