Barack Obama may have won this crucial state three years ago on the Sunday before election day when “souls to the polls” drives brought a surge of blacks and Latinos to cast ballots after church. Florida had opened the polls two weeks early, and even so, long lines across the state prompted the governor to issue an emergency order extending the hours for early voting. Propelled by waves of new voters including college students, Obama eked out a win with 51%. It will be different next year, a result of changes in the voting laws adopted by the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Early voting was reduced from two weeks to one week. Voting on the Sunday before election day was eliminated. College students face new hurdles if they want to vote away from home. And those who register new voters face the threat of fines for procedural errors, prompting the nonpartisan League of Women Voters to suspend voter registration drives and accuse the Legislature of “reverting to Jim Crow-like tactics.”
What is happening in Florida is part of a national trend, as election law has become a fierce partisan battleground. In states where Republicans have taken majority control, they have tightened rules for registering new voters, reduced the time for casting ballots and required voters to show photo identification at the polls. The new restrictions were usually adopted on party-line votes and signed by Republican governors.
During Florida’s legislative debate on the new law, a Republican state senator argued that it should not be easy or convenient to vote. Voting “is a hard-fought privilege. This is something people died for,” said Sen. Michael Bennett of Bradenton, the chamber’s president pro tempore. “Why should we make it easier?”