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Contentious Elections Bill Passes Florida House

April 21, 2011 - 6:00pm

A broad elections bill that supporters say would shield the voting process from fraud, but opponents decry as a revival of legalized voting suppression, passed the House on a party-line vote Thursday.

The 157-page, 4,392-line bill (HB 1355) cleared the House on a 79-37 vote. It still needs Senate approval.

The measure limits when voters can change their addresses at the polls; places new regulations on third-party registration groups; and creates a new panel to set Floridas presidential preference primary date in hopes of defusing a showdown between state Republicans and the national party.

This bill will restore credibility to Floridas election process by ensuring an accountable and transparent process that protects the voting rights of our states citizens, while significantly reducing the potential for voter fraud, said State Affairs Committee Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, in a statement following the vote.

But Democrats continued to slam the bill as little more than an attempt to undermine President Barack Obamas re-election effort in 2012 by making it more difficult for Democratic voters to cast their ballots in a crucial swing state.

It is my sincere hope that my former colleagues in the Senate reject this assault on Floridas democratic process and defeat this effort to suppress the voting rights of all Floridians, Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith said.

In a politically charged debate, some Democrats harkened back to the days of Jim Crow, when black voters faced death for even attempting to cast ballots.

We have changed the devices, but we still have a problem, said Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando.

Others said the bill bordered on anti-Americanism.

Please do not turn the party of Lincoln into the party of Stalin, said Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach.

Republicans responded with the same refrain they have pushed throughout the debate: While specific instances of in-person voting fraud in Florida are sparse, the opportunity for tampering with elections is still strong.

Dont you understand the damage youve done to everybodys vote when you dont guard the system? asked Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who sponsored the measure.

Supporters of the bill also said that there was no reason for voters who cast their ballots legally to worry about the new rules.

The only barrier this bill creates is a barrier to fraud, said Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando.

The measure also includes a provision that would allow lawmakers to propose alternate ballot summaries for constitutional amendments and, if all else fails, place the text of an amendment before voters.

Lawmakers also approved, on a 79-38 vote, a separate bill (HB 1261) including the same proposal, a response to the Supreme Courts decision to strike several legislatively-backed amendments from the ballots because of misleading or confusing summaries.

This bill is all about giving Floridians the right to vote, said Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville.

But Steinberg said the Legislature could do that by making sure that its first cut at ballot language was more carefully crafted.

We also have the duty to make sure we shoot straight with the voters, he said.

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