Saturday, October 27, 2012

Early voting (finally) begins in Florida

Posted By on Sat, Oct 27, 2012 at 1:29 PM

Rep. Janet Cruz leads a march to the West Tampa public library
  • Rep. Janet Cruz leads a march to the West Tampa public library
Although more than a million of the 12 million eligible Florida voters have already cast ballots, the official beginning of early voting started Saturday morning throughout the Sunshine State.

Early voting was adopted in Florida in 2002, in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential recount election. It's a trend that has grown nationally and been extremely popular in Florida, especially with Democrats. But it's starting five days later than usual, thanks to the controversial election reform bill passed last year.

The use of voting by absentee ballot has always been an option, but has usually been the province of Republicans. That's not the case in this extremely tight election season, with the Obama For America team strongly encouraging its targeted voters to exercise that opportunity.

The Democrats' not-so-secret weapon has always been early voting in Florida, so today there were various events to kick-off the start of it, including in West Tampa, where state House Democrats Janet Cruz and Betty Reed led a group of about 20 people to go to vote at the West Tampa public library.

"It's the sad reality of voter voter suppression. They succeeded," Representative Cruz said about HR 1355, the elections bill passed by the GOP-Legislature in early 2011 that among its various provisions, reduced the days of early voting from 14 to eight.

While Republicans have said they did not cut the maximum number of hours that elections office could offer early voting (96 hours), in fact local elections offices are all over the place in terms of the number of hours they will be open. Just 35 of the state's 67 counties are offering the full 96 hours available for early voting. Hernando County is offering just 62 hours, the fewest in the state. The elections supervisor there says he can't afford to pay workers overtime to keep the polls open longer.

"It's confusing to the voter," Representative Cruz says of the different schedules.

Bob Henriquez, a West Tampa Democrat battling Ronda Storms for the Property Appraiser's position, blasted the elections law. "There were no issues with the vote being longer. People can figure out what the Legislature was doing pretty easily in terms of trying to restrict access for folks to go to the polls."

Florida was one of over a dozen states that implemented some form of electoral reform since 2010, when a Republican tsunami not only saw governors like Rick Scott get elected, but many state legislatures go from blue to red, or in Florida's case, redder.

"They basically did a checklist of all the things that helped the president get elected last time, and figured out ways to cut into those votes," Henriquez said.

One Democrat willing to criticize another Democrat was state Representative Betty Reed. She's angry that Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Earl Lennard didn't legally fight to maintain the 14 days of early voting.

That's because Hillsborough is one of five Florida counties that have been under federal jurisdiction since the mid 1970s to protect minority voters from discrimination in voting. Any changes to election laws in those counties must be pre-cleared by the Department of Justice or the courts before they can go into effect.

Last month Lennard and three of the four other supervisors of elections came to an agreement with the Rick Scott administration to only allow 8 days of early voting.

That agreement came a month after a panel of judges in Washington D.C. ruled that the five counties could have four extra days of early voting.

"I'm really disappointed with Earl Lennard," Reed said."I would expect him to stick to the rules. Because of the lawsuit, we could have stayed at 14 days.

In addition to the Democrats, representatives from a host of other progressive organizations were present at the march in West Tampa, including Hassan Shibley, executive director of the Tampa chapter of Council on American- Islamic Relations (CAIR).

As a non-profit, CAIR is not allowed to endorse candidates. But Shibley has been the target of an intense personal attack from Hillsborough County school board candidate Terry Kemple after he spoke at a Hillsborough County school nearly a year ago. Shibley said he wanted to motivate the public to vote for candidates that represented their values, but admitted that "we have candidates running on platforms that are based on nothing but discrimination against religious minorities."

Laila Abdelaziz is with the group Emerge USA. She said she believes Americans take the franchise for granted.

"I was born in the Middle East and my mother was born and raised in Soviet Russia, so I come from a household that really understands the importance of voting. My father will be voting for the first time in his life, this election cycle. I registered him myself. It was a real emotional moment for me, my dad just got his citizenship. He's given us the life we have hear, and now finally he has a voice."

Early voting will continue for the next week.

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