Charlie Crist trashes Gov. Rick Scott in Senate hearing over voting ‘joke’

 

In a possible warm-up to the 2014 governor’s race, former Gov. Charlie Crist attacks Gov. Rick Scott over an election law, voting mishaps in Florida during a hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee

mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com

Former Gov. Charlie Crist bashed Gov. Rick Scott twice by name during a U.S. Senate hearing on Wednesday for signing an election law that helped suppress the vote and turn Florida into a “late-night TV joke.”

Crist’s Senate Judiciary Committee testimony came just hours after the release of a new poll showing he’s more popular than the current governor, who is preparing to face his predecessor — a Republican-turned Democrat — in the 2014 elections.

Scott earlier Wednesday acknowledged on CNN that some fixes might be needed for the election law he signed in 2011. That law cut back the days of in-person early voting and helped make the ballot longer, which led to long lines.

“We’ve got to go back and look at the number of days of early voting we have,” said Scott, who has repeatedly stated that he signed the law to improve elections, not rig the system for Republicans.

Still, Scott’s statements Wednesday contrasted with his responses when asked about his refusal to extend early in-person voting during the election.

"We did the right thing," Scott said at the time.

Hours after Scott’s CNN interview, Crist testified in Washington and called for a possible federal law to prevent a repeat of what happened in Florida in November. Crist said the law Scott signed was designed to give Republicans a "partisan" edge.

Crist pointed out that, when he was governor, he tried to give more former felons the right to vote and that he also issued an executive order in 2008 that kept the polls open longer for early in-person voting, which is heavily used by Democrats, independents and minorities, a Miami Herald analysis showed.

Factoring in Crist’s executive order, Florida in 2008 had a cumulative 120 hours of early voting over 14 days. Four years later, Scott insisted that the number of early voting hours be held at 96 over eight days.

The lines — especially in South Florida — swelled.

“As Gov. Scott refused to take action to ease the lines, in some cases, those lines extended to six and seven hours,” Crist testified.

“The outcome of these decisions was quite obvious,” Crist said. “Florida, which four years earlier was a model for efficiency, became once again a late-night TV joke.”

Crist, however, never mentioned that local election supervisors could have opened more early voting sites or that some precincts were ill-equipped to handle the crush of voters. That’s a local, not a state, responsibility.

Crist’s testimony came after Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat Crist endorsed in the just-ended elections along with President Obama.

“Florida’s 2011 election law changes were politically motivated,” Nelson said, adding that the provisions “were clearly designed to disenfranchise likely Democratic voters and not, as the Republican sponsors in the Legislature contended, to prevent voter fraud.”

Nelson said Republicans throughout the country launched this “campaign” tied to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is funded partly by the conservative Koch brothers.

To bolster his case, Nelson submitted a deposition from a federal court case in which a former Republican Party of Florida attorney admitted he helped draft a version of the bill Scott later signed.

“When asked: ‘do you think that voter fraud is a problem?’ He says: ‘No,” said Nelson, who also criticized the law’s voter-registration-drive limitations, which a judge later blocked.

A Republican Party of Florida spokesman, Brian Burgess, said Crist and Nelson were guilty of “political posturing” and disputed the suggestion that the party was complicit in limiting early voting days. Burgess said that was done later by an amendment offered by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami.

One Republican of the Judiciary Committee, Iowa’s Charles Grassley, said earlier in the hearing that opponents of anti-fraud legislation trivialize the importance of having crime-free elections.

“Fraud does exist. It’s a fact of life. And it will get worse if the only response is denial,” Grassley.

Grassley pointed to a study from the nonpartisan Pew Study on the States that found millions of people are registered to vote in more than one state simultaneously, dead people are on the voter rolls in some states and that the identities of a few dead people have been used to cast ballots.

“We should never trivialize efforts to expand the voter rolls, but we should make sure that those people who get on the voter rolls are entitled to be there,” Grassley said, noting that President Obama’s Homeland Security Department refused to help states like Iowa and Florida identify noncitizen voters on their rolls.

Crist later criticized Scott for trying to “purge 200,000” citizens – an inflated number. Scott’s elections division initially identified a potential pool of 200,000 possible noncitizen, but the state asked counties to review the citizenship status for just 2,700 of them.

Ultimately, the counties — not the state — were to make the determination on whether a potential noncitizen was allowed to vote. And many county election supervisors stopped the program when they found the list was riddled with false-positives.

Florida successfully fought off the U.S. Justice Department’s attempts to block the purge program and had to sue the Department of Homeland Security for access to a database that made the search for noncitizens easier.

However, relatively few potential noncitizens were actually proved to be unlawfully on the rolls.

Polls showed that Scott’s noncitizen-purge program was supported by voters.

Judging by the ire of South Florida voters on Election Day and during in-person early voting, the law Scott signed is probably less well-liked.

Some voters dropped out of early voting lines because of the long waits, only to encounter them at the polls on Election Day. Some voters had to drop out of line on Election Day as well to go to work. At least one woman fainted in line before she could vote.

A big reason for the Election Day long lines: Some precincts didn’t have enough voting booths to handle voters who took longer to vote because of the longer ballot -- which was the result of a number of proposed state Constitutional amendments the Legislature tacked on the ballot.

Scott spoke about all those problems Wednesday on CNN’s Starting Point.

“There’s three things," he said. "One, the length of the ballot. Two, we’ve got to allow our supervisors more flexibility on the size of our polling locations. And three, the number of days we have" for early voting.

The bad publicity comes at an unwelcome time for Scott, whose favorability ratings are poor.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday morning found that just 31 percent of voters had a favorable view of him while 43 percent held an unfavorable view. Crist’s numbers: 47 percent favorable, 33 percent unfavorable.

Crist is widely believed to be preparing for a comeback. He opted not to seek a second term to run for the U.S. Senate in 2010, when Crist had such high poll numbers that he seemed unbeatable.

But Crist fared so badly against former House Speaker Marco Rubio in the GOP primary that Crist left the party. Running as an independent, Crist lost out to Rubio anyway.

In preparation for Crist’s run, Scott and the state GOP have repeatedly reminded reporters about Crist’s ideological flip-flops and the record number of jobs the state lost while Crist was governor from 2007-2011.

Crist, in turn, sounds ready to make his upcoming election about the last election, contrasting the relatively smooth experience in 2008 with what happened Nov. 6.

“We knew the outcome of the state election before the 11 o clock news” in 2008, Crist said. “Unfortunately, the last few years in Florida [lawmakers] haven’t been so forward thinking.”

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