The state of Florida has an unfortunate history of disenfranchising voters. We all remember the “hanging chads” of 2000. Less well-known is how Florida wrongly labeled 12,000 eligible voters as felons, 41 percent of whom were African-Americans, and kicked them off the voting rolls that year, which could have very well cost Al Gore the election. Florida attempted another controversial voter purge in 2004, but was forced to scrap the plan after public outcry (history is repeating itself this year). The 2008 election, however, was noticeably smooth in the Sunshine State, producing a surprising victory for Barack Obama.
Following the 2010 election, Florida Republicans concluded that it was a little too easy to vote in the state. “I want the people in the State of Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who is willing to walk 200 miles for that opportunity he’s never had before in his life,” said GOP State Senator Michael Bennett. “This should not be easy.”
Upon taking office in 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott and the Republican legislature drastically changed the state’s election laws by preventing ex-felons from being able to cast a ballot after serving their time, cutting back early voting from fourteen to eight days, and severely restricting voter registration drives.
As I reported in Rolling Stone:
In May , the GOP-controlled legislature in Florida passed a law requiring anyone who signs up new voters to hand in registration forms to the state board of elections within 48 hours of collecting them, and to comply with a barrage of onerous, bureaucratic requirements. Those found to have submitted late forms would face a $1,000 fine, as well as possible felony prosecution.
As a result, the law threatens to turn civic-minded volunteers into inadvertent criminals. Denouncing the legislation as “good old-fashioned voter suppression,” the League of Women Voters announced that it was ending its registration efforts in Florida, where it has been signing up new voters for the past 70 years.
The voter registration restrictions seem particularly ironic in light of the escalating scandal involving Strategic Allied Consulting, the RNC-funded GOP voter registration firm, run by a Republican operative with a history of bad behavior, recently accused of submitting fraudulent voter registration forms in Florida and elsewhere. The scandal makes Republican claims about ACORN sound more than a little ridiculous.
Florida Republicans invoked ACORN as the reason for the voter registration restrictions in 2011, even though ACORN was out of existence by that point. “Can you spell ACORN?” State Representative Dennis Baxley, chief sponsor of the law, told reporters at the time. “Or have you forgot all about that, and some of the problems that we had?”
Yet the law change appeared to be more about political payback than a sincere concern about voter registration fraud. “The first major imposition of restrictions on voter registration drives occurred in 2005, a year after ACORN’s community organizing work resulted in enough signatures to place a citizen initiative on the ballot to increase Florida’s minimum wage,” the Brennan Center for Justice reported. The 2005 law was subsequently blocked in court. But it was taken up again and passed by Republicans in 2011.