Voter Laws Pose Risk to Obama in Republican-Led States

The last Sunday before Election Day
is the same every time for Jerry West. He closes his
Jacksonville, Florida, music shop selling eight-track tapes and
vinyl records, casts his ballot at an early voting site and
drives 20 or so shut-ins to the polls.

“They tell me all the time if it wasn’t for me they
couldn’t have voted,” West, 63, said of the elderly voters. “I
don’t know what they’ll do now.”

This year, early voting in the country’s biggest swing
state will end sooner under a new election law that Democrats
have sued to block, claiming it’s likely to hurt minority-voter
turnout.

Florida is among four key states where restrictions on
voter eligibility, approved by Republican-controlled
legislatures, threaten President Barack Obama’s re-election
prospects in a race against Republican Mitt Romney that opinion
polls suggest will be close. The U.S. Justice Department as well
as civil liberties and voter-advocacy groups have sued to throw
out many of these rules.

“There have been more changes in the last four years than
other four-year presidential cycles,” said David Becker,
director of election initiatives for the Washington-based Pew
Center on the States. “That creates challenges for voters, who
have to know what the laws are.”

The Obama campaign sued over Ohio’s early voting law,
claiming it violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal
protection. In Pennsylvania, new photo-ID rules burden the poor
and elderly, according to a challenge by the American Civil
Liberties Union. Wisconsin is appealing state court rulings that
blocked new voter-ID laws opponents said would unfairly burden
minority voters.

Minority Voters

The U.S Justice Department is investigating the
Pennsylvania law and joined a lawsuit in Florida over the way
the state removed non-citizens from its voting rolls. The
department, exercising its powers under voting rights law, has
also blocked voter-ID laws in Texas and South Carolina, states
where Republicans have won every presidential race since 1980.

The president’s campaign, which focused on voter
registration four years ago and claimed early voting was
instrumental in his victory in Florida, slowed its registration
efforts in the Sunshine State this time until lawyers could
decipher new restrictions signed into law last year by
Republican Governor Rick Scott. Now, volunteers are put through
a full day of training about the law and must pass a quiz about
the regulations before signing up new voters.

Democratic Website

A new Democratic website — GottaVote.com — was designed
to outline registration and Election Day requirements for voters
in each state.

The new laws were passed after Republicans in 2010 gained
majorities in 11 state legislatures, including Ohio, Wisconsin
and Pennsylvania, according to the Denver-based National
Conference of State Legislatures. Heading into the 2012
elections, Republicans control the legislature and governor’s
office in 20 states, while Democrats control 11. The two parties
share power in 19 states.

Patrick Gaspard, director of the Democratic National
Committee and Obama’s former political director, said new laws
in Republican-controlled states were designed to “suppress and
block” Democrats from voting.

“Instead of producing jobs, they’d rather keep young
people from voting,” Gaspard said on Bloomberg Television’s
“Political Capital With Al Hunt.” “They’d rather keep senior
citizens from voting.”

Voter Suppression

Republicans say the changes are aimed at stopping election
fraud and trimming costs by reducing the number of days polling
places will be open for early voting.

“I’ve never had any conversations with anybody about voter
suppression,” Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry
said. “It’s a pretty high charge and it’s offensive.”

Florida politicians often note the crucial role the state
plays in presidential elections. The state has 29 electoral
votes and an electorate that is almost evenly split in
presidential elections. Since 2000, Republicans have captured
10.9 million votes, Democrats 10.8 million.

During that same time, the state has earned a reputation
for manipulating election laws, said Wendy Weiser, director of
the Democracy Program at New York University’s Brennan Center
for Justice.

Florida Recount

“Florida is the poster child for politicized election
administration,” Weiser said. “The debacle in Florida in 2000
is part of what gave birth to this movement of tinkering with
the rules before major elections,” she said, referring to the
recount of the results in the race between George W. Bush and Al
Gore, ultimately decided in Bush’s favor by the U.S. Supreme
Court. “It taught the nation that the rules can make a
difference in outcomes.”

This year, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle struck down
parts of a new Florida statute that reduced the time limit for
groups registering voters to turn in forms before they face
increased fines. The provision was highlighted the plight of
Jill Cicciarelli, a high school teacher in New Smyrna Beach,
Florida, who faced thousands of dollars in fines after helping
about 50 students fill out forms and then turned them in after
the deadline.

Groups signing up voters must still register with the state
and mark each form they collect with a state-provided
identification number under the remaining provisions of the law.

The state is also defending against a lawsuit that the
Justice Department joined over the way Secretary of State Ken Detzner purges non-citizens from the registration rolls.

In addition, it’s fighting a federal citizens’ lawsuit
filed July 27 that seeks to undo a cut in the number of early
voting days.

Black Voters

Black voters disproportionately rely on early voting, the
plaintiffs claim. More than half of black voters cast their
ballots before Election Day in 2008, according to state data.
The suit was filed by local voters, including West, the
volunteer driver, U.S. Representative Corrine Brown, a
Jacksonville Democrat, and the Jacksonville chapter of Atlanta-
based Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The law cuts the number of days to cast early ballots to
eight from 14 while keeping the total hours for early voting at
96. The final Sunday of early voting was eliminated.

“People have a right to make their decision at the last
minute,” said R.L. Gundy, a Baptist pastor and president of the
South Christian Leadership Conference’s state chapter.

‘Racist Implication’

State Representative Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who
sponsored the election law, disputed that the changes would give
Republicans an advantage.

“Are they saying that certain people don’t know how to
participate and you have to treat them in some different way?
That’s a racist implication in and of itself,” Baxley said.
“Our law is the same for everyone.”

Steve Schale, who directed Obama’s 2008 campaign in
Florida, has said Obama won the Sunshine State before Election
Day thanks to a record 4.4 million voters who cast their ballots
at early voting sites or through the mail that year. It was the
first time in Florida that Election Day accounted for less than
half of total turnout.

The campaign also helped register thousands of new voters.
Almost 579,000 voters cast ballots in Florida for the first time
in 2008, almost all of whom were Hispanic or black, according to
U.S. Census data. Turnout among voters less than 25 years old
increased from 39 percent in 2004 to 49 percent in 2008.

As of June 30, there were 11.4 million registered voters in
Florida, or 0.1 percent less than the 2008 rolls, according to
state data. In each of the past three presidential elections in
Florida, by contrast, the number of registered voters grew by at
least 9 percent and as much as 18 percent from four years
earlier.

Some groups, including the Florida League of Women Voters
suspended registration drives for a year after the new law was
passed. The League resumed its registration drive in June after
Judge Hinkle’s decision.

“We just don’t know how far behind we are,” said Deirdre MacNab, Florida League of Women Voters president.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Michael C. Bender in Tallahassee at
mbender10@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
William Glasgall at
wglasgall@bloomberg.net