We enjoy many freedoms in America because “we the people” choose our leaders though open and fair elections. Previous generations, often because of their race or gender, battled for the right to vote. And the brave men and women of our military have put their lives on the line to protect these freedoms and rights.
An open, transparent and fair election is the bedrock of our political system. So any change to how elections are held should be considered with the utmost caution and always with the goal of ensuring every legitimate voter can access the polls with no barrier, delay or intimidation.
So it was troubling last year when a massive piece of legislation suddenly changed many procedures for voter registration and early voting in Florida. Then, as many of these changes were being challenged in the courts, the state began a questionable purge of “illegal” voters. As justification for these affronts to citizens’ rights, the state cited “voter fraud.”
Clearly, if fraud exists, the 67 locally elected supervisors of elections should aggressively address it, while ensuring that legitimate voters remain on the rolls and that their votes are counted. But first, the supervisors must confirm that fraud exists.Then, they should address it with a properly measured remedy. But this approach doesn’t describe recent history in Florida.
It all started in the spring of 2011 during the legislative session. A bill passed the Senate ethics and elections committee that addressed one issue: making it easier to put legislative-sponsored constitutional amendments on the ballot after the courts determine the language is misleading or confusing, by allowing the attorney general to simply make any needed changes.
After passing out of committee as a relatively small bill, this piece of legislation morphed into a 158-page bill filled with controversial changes, including reducing the number of early voting days from 14 to six, and requiring the use of provisional ballots for voters who, as one example, want to note their new addresses at the polls.
The first opportunity many of us had to question this legislative train was on the floor of the Senate when it faced final passage. Where was the justification for making these changes? Where was the chance for meaningful debate? Why should we make it more difficult to register, change your address and vote?
While there was no credible evidence of fraud, nor any claim of fraudulent activity from the supervisors of election, the actions were defended with the noble-sounding cause of “preventing fraud.”
At the same time, Gov. Rick Scott produced a questionable list — two, in fact — of potentially “illegal” voters. The larger list was quickly abandoned, but a purge list with roughly 2,000 names was sent to counties with the suggestion that these voters be removed from the rolls. After numerous people on the list, including several war heroes, stepped forward and proved their citizenship, the purge was temporarily halted.
Now, with less than four weeks to go to the 2012 presidential election, voter fraud has legitimately become a worrisome factor — but not because of problems with early voting or any significant finding of illegally registered voters.
Suspicious voter registration forms began surfacing recently in Palm Beach County. Other counties similarly found discrepancies with duplicate forms, nonexistent people, or people with dual registration in other states. At last count, elections supervisors in at least 10 Florida counties are trying to determine how many new voters — registered by a single company — are legitimate.
With time running out, how do supervisors ensure the integrity of their rolls?
Ironically the questionable firm was hired by the Republican Party of Florida for more than $1 million. It’s hard to argue you’re changing elections law to prevent fraud when your actions are directly responsible for it.
The integrity of our elections process depends on a fair and honest respect for the sanctity of our vote. Changes to the process should be initiated by supervisors of elections, our experts in running elections, and not by political forces that see an opportunity to influence the outcome.
Paula Dockery is a term-limited Republican senator from Lakeland who is chronicling her final year in the Florida Senate.