In May 2011, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law HB 1355, a bill that once again put Florida at the center of the national debate over free and fair elections. The law dramatically changed the rules for both early voting and voter registration, creating a proc ess so complex and legally risky that groups like the League of Women Voters for a while opted out of registering in the state altogether. Instead they sued, charging that the law is unconstitutional and violates the National Voter Registration Act. In late May of this year, a federal judge blocked the law’s most controversial provisions pending a trial. (In June, in a separate case, the Justice Department sued Florida to stop Secretary of State Ken Detzner from purging the rolls of 2,600 alleged noncitizens, hundreds of whom have since been shown to be legal voters.)
HB 1355’s still unfolding story offers a stark example of the changes that have taken place in the conversation about voting rights nationally over the past two years. Besides Florida, dozens of other states have passed or debated onerous changes to their voting rules since 2010. Advocates of these measures claim that the true threat to democracy isn’t low voter registration or turnout—it’s fraudulent voting.
But as the Florida ACLU recently pointed out, voter fraud is rarer than shark attacks in the state, a claim backed up by PolitiFact, which found just forty-nine investigations of fraud in Florida since 2008. In June the Orlando Sentinel reported that 178 cases of alleged voter fraud had been referred to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement since 2000, with just eleven arrests and seven convictions. So if fraud is virtually a nonexistent problem, what does Florida’s HB 1355 accomplish?
As its sponsor, State Senator Mike Bennett, made clear when the bill passed last year, its intent is to make voting more difficult. “I don’t have a problem making it harder,” Bennett said. “I want people in Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who walks 200 miles across the desert. This should not be easy.”
Bennett’s bill is unraveling years of work by voting rights activists to tear down the barriers that discourage African-Americans, Latinos and young people in particular from participating in our democracy. The law mandated for the first time in Florida’s history that people who conduct voter registration drives must themselves register with the state before signing up new voters. Once they register a new voter, they have forty-eight hours to submit that registration to the county under exacting specifications. Late or improper applications can result in stiff fines or even felony fraud charges and jail time. These requirements were burdensome enough to scare away even national groups with sophisticated processes for ensuring their registrations are valid. As the League of Women Voters’ Florida chapter president, Deirdre McNab, told MSNBC’s Al Sharpton, “These new laws frighten people from registering voters.”
The racial impact of Bennett’s bill is clear. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, black and Latino Floridians are more than twice as likely as white voters to register to vote through community-based voter registration drives. In 2008, more than 1.1 million black voters cast ballots in Florida, a record turnout driven in no small part by registration campaigns led by black churches. Of course, 96 percent voted for Barack Obama.