TALLAHASSEE – Several groups on Monday criticized language in an elections bill that they say would make it more difficult for some minority, disabled and elderly voters to cast ballots.
A provision in the wide-ranging bill wouldn’t allow voters to use assistants to cast ballots if they didn’t previously know them. Also, nobody could assist more than 10 voters per election. That means that people who can’t read English, are blind, have a disability or have trouble voting for any other reason wouldn’t be able to ask for help from trained volunteers at the polls unless they already know them.
“This is again not about what’s best for Florida’s elections but it’s politicians getting in the way of solutions for democracy,” said Gihan Perera, executive director of Florida New Majority, a group that advocates for minorities.
Lawmakers are considering wide-ranging changes to Florida’s election laws in the wake of problems with long lines and counting delays in the 2012 election. That follows changes which the Republican-led Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott made in 2011 cutting the number of early voting days, taking away the option of early voting on the Sunday before the election and making it more difficult for people who’ve recently moved to vote with a regular ballot.
Democrats and civil rights groups accused Republicans of making those changes in an effort to restrict the votes of minorities and younger people who tend to support Democratic candidates. After the 2012 election and the national criticism that followed, Republicans are now proposing several changes they say will make voting easier, such as allowing more early voting days and polling locations. Counties also will have the option of conducting early voting the Sunday before the election, when many black churches organize “Souls to the Polls” voting drives.
But voting won’t be easier for people who can’t read English or have a disability that requires them to need help at the polls, said Perera, who was joined on a news conference call with representatives from the NAACP, the civil rights group Advancement Project, a union that represents service workers and the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
The language was placed in the bill by Republican Sen. Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee. The groups said trained voting assistants helped thousands of people vote in the last election and the demand for help in some communities, such as Haitian-American neighborhoods, exceeded the ability to provide it.
“The Latvala amendment is only the latest in a long history of Florida policies that make it harder to vote,” said Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez, Advancement Project’s director of voter protection. “They’ve been getting worse over time.”
She said Desiline Victor, the 102-year-old Miami woman whom President Barack Obama used as a symbol of early voting obstacles in his State of the Union address, used an assistant when she voted. The Senate was set to vote on the bill (HB 7013) this Wednesday. There are questions of whether the language violates constitutional rights, said Vicki Davis, the Martin County supervisor of elections and the president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections.
“Can you constitutionally say, ‘No you’re not allowed to have that individual assist you because they reached a limit?’” Davis said. “That’s a question mark out there.”
While the issue is larger in the state’s most populated counties, Davis said it’s not uncommon for voters to ask for someone to help.
“I haven’t heard any other supervisors express it being a problem for them.”