Willing to Testify About Voting Law Slop

Feb 9, 2012 by

Did you hear the public outcry last year about voting having become too easy? Or that early voting offered too much flexibility? Or that letting school teachers help students register to vote made things way too convenient?

Neither did anyone else, except some politically motivated members of the Florida Legislature, who swiftly passed House Bill 1355 to rescue you from the dangers of voting at your convenience. Whew. What a relief.

In all seriousness, Florida’s new election law was another poorly vetted piece of legislative slop. It’s no surprise the matter has wound up in court. And though my name popped up in the defense strategy — that sitting lawmakers can’t be subpoenaed to testify — I’m eager to voluntarily tell the court, and you, what happened.

The Senate slid its election-law changes — a 40-page document with a few small issues — through the Ethics and Elections Committee with minimal debate. Even at that point, I couldn’t support the bill and so cast my nay vote and went on with my day. Little did I know what would happen when the bill reached its final committee, the Budget Committee, where it grew to 148 pages with one amendment that added these massive changes:

• Early voting: Reduced from 14 days to eight, and ends the Saturday before an election. County election supervisors can offer early voting from six to 12 hours a day for a maximum of 96 hours.

•Voter registration: Third-party groups that sign up new voters must register with the state and submit completed forms within 48 hours, rather than 10 days, or face $50-a-day fines.

• Address/Name changes: Limits voters ability to make name or address changes at the polls.

• Ballot initiatives: Signatures of voters on citizen-led ballot initiative petitions are valid for two years from the date of signature, not four.

• Presidential primary: A nine-member panel appointed by Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders will choose the date of the 2012 presidential primary.

In typical Tallahassee fashion, the bill was rushed to the Senate floor. Surprised and disappointed at the bill’s expansion, I joined one other Republican and most of the Democrats in opposition. Many concerned citizens, Republicans and Democrats alike, contacted my office about what they perceived to be an attempt at voter suppression. What was going on? What were the true motivations? In response, the bill’s supporters offered unsupported allegations of voter fraud.

The League of Women Voters and other organizations decided to sue the state, arguing the new restrictions violate the U.S. Constitution or federal law in three main ways: (1) they violate plaintiffs’ constitutionally protected rights of speech and association; (2) they fail to give individuals and groups fair notice of how to comply with confusing and unclear mandates; and (3) they violate the National Voter Registration Act – a federal law designed in part to encourage community-based voter registration activity.

In November, several legislators and staffers, myself included, received a subpoena from the groups’ attorneys asking for documents related to the bill. My office voluntarily turned over what we had, which wasn’t much since I never heard the controversial provisions in the Ethics and Elections Subcommittee where proper vetting should have occurred. It remains my intention to cooperate in any way necessary, as I still question both the process and the policy.

In mid-January, the Senate’s General Counsel informed me that the Legislature would oppose the depositions, arguing that lawmakers are protected by “legislative immunity and privilege.” On Feb. 3, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that legislators long have had a common-law privilege that shields them from being forced to testify about why they make decisions.

While my name was included on the legal action, I made sure I was free to voluntarily testify or speak to the issue. Of the four legislators issued subpoenas, I was the only “no” vote.

To be clear, I will willingly share my thoughts on the policy and process and I question whether the four most controversial parts will survive the scrutiny of the courts and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The voters may not have had much say in the legislative process, but they will have their day in court.

All columns are (c) Paula Dockery | No reprint rights to whole columns are ever granted without express permission. | To syndicate Paula Dockery's columns please write to PBDockery@gmail.com

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