A new state law that limits Florida’s early voting period and makes it more difficult for third-party organizations such as the NAACP and the League of Women Voters to register voters will be examined.
Friday at a special U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing in Tampa.
Concerned state and federal lawmakers and civic leaders say they want the session to be a mandate for reversal of some of the restrictive measures passed last year by the Republican-controlled Legislature. Among the bill’s controversial provisions are tougher voter-ID requirements that critics say discourage, if not disenfranchise, minorities, the elderly, the disabled and the homeless and new and young voters.
“We’re trying to keep the spotlight on voter suppression,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who called for the hearing.
“I know people’s voting rights are being taken away,” Nelson said, referring to House Bill 1355 which shortened the early voting period from 14 days to 8.
The hearing will take place even as Floridians are making use of a shorter early voting period for the Jan. 31 Republican presidential primary and some countywide initiatives. Most of Florida’s 67 precincts opened for early voting on Saturday.
“These egregious voting laws throw us back to 1965 to an era when we could not vote at all,” said NAACP Florida State Conference president, Adora Obi Nweze, who will attend the hearing.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 abolished poll taxes, literacy tests and other deterrents such as asking black voters in the South to accurately count the number of gum balls in a bottle. If they could not guess the number, they were disqualified from voting.
“When you talk about not having early voting you will see an impact on our churches’ ‘Souls to polls’ programs which enabled thousands to vote. They went to church and, after service, got on the bus and went to the polls,” Nweze said.
The new state law prohibits early voting on the Sunday before an election.
Democrat state Rep. Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed of Pompano Beach and Rep. Joseph A. Gibbons of Pembroke Park have introduced bills during the current legislative session to reverse the new law.
Gibbons said his bill also seeks to increase the number and types of venues, such as universities, to be designated as polling places.
The Rev. O’Neal Dozier, senior pastor of the Worldwide Christian Center in Pompano Beach, is a Christian conservative who disagrees with the Republican-led effort to restrict early voting.
“People should have every opportunity to vote,” Dozier said. “To me the longer one has to vote, the better. I don’t see a reason to shorten the days from 14 to eight unless they can show that it will significantly decrease our tax burden.”
The law also makes it difficult for volunteer organizations to register voters, requiring, among other provisions, for groups to turn in voter registration forms on a tight deadline and fine them if they fail to turn in the forms within 48 hours after they are filled out. As a result, Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters have suspended their voter registration efforts.
“What’s the fear? That blacks will get more black people to be registered?” Dozier said. “If that is the fear, the Republican Party needs to do a better job at recruiting.”
Nweze said two Florida NAACP branches have had run-ins with election supervisors in Okaloosa and Madison counties in the Panhandle. She also cited voter registration conflicts in Quitman, Ga., which is near the Florida border.
The Jan. 27 hearing will be chaired by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who heads the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. A press conference by civic groups that will be represented at the hearing will take place at 11 a.m. at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in downtown Tampa, Nweze said. The hearing, also at the courthouse, gets under way at 1 p.m.
*Pictured above is Rev. O'Neal Dozier