In a prelude to a long and bitter campaign, former Gov. Charlie Crist pointedly criticized Gov. Rick Scott during a U.S. Senate hearing Wednesday over an elections law that led to voting troubles and helped turn Florida into a “late-night TV joke.”
Crist’s Senate Judiciary Committee testimony came just hours after a new poll showed he’s more popular than the current governor, who is preparing to face his predecessor on the 2014 ballot.
Before and since Election Day, Scott has been under fire for an elections law he signed that cut back the days of in-person early voting and increased the size of voters’ ballots, which led to embarrassingly long lines.
Hours before Crist’s testimony, Scott appeared on CNN and blunted some of the criticisms by saying the law needs to be fixed.
“We’ve got to go back and look at the number of days of early voting we have,” said Scott, who had previously described the law as the “right thing” to stop voter fraud.
“People are frustrated in our state,” Scott said. “We’ve got to restore confidence in our election” system.
Crist suggested that Scott was the one to blame because he signed the election law in 2011 and, this year, the governor refused to extend in-person early voting hours despite lines that stretched for hours and discouraged many South Floridians from voting.
Crist contrasted that record with his own as governor in 2008, when he extended early voting hours.
“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 called for a national law to expand in-person early voting rights. He said the law Scott signed was designed to give Republicans a “partisan” edge. Democrats vote early in person more than Republicans. The Republican-led Legislature and Scott cut back those days from 14 to eight.
Crist was a surrogate this year for President Obama, who won Florida in 2012 and 2008, thanks in great part to early voting.
Crist became a Democrat only this month. He was Republican for most of his political career, and then became an independent in a futile bid to win a U.S. Senate seat against a more-popular Republican, Marco Rubio, in 2010.
At the same time, Scott won the governor’s mansion. The political neophyte entered office with weak poll numbers, which declined further after education money was cut in his first year in office.
The just-ended elections woes didn’t help Scott’s approval ratings.
Now, 55 percent of voters — including 50 percent of GOP voters — said they’d like a Republican candidate to challenge Scott in a primary, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. Only 30 percent of Republicans say Scott shouldn’t face a primary opponent.
The poll also found that just 31 percent of voters had a favorable view of Scott while 43 percent held an unfavorable view. Crist’s numbers: 47 percent favorable, 33 percent unfavorable.
Crist is viewed poorly by Republicans who have watched him evolve from Republican Obama critic to independent to Obama backer to Democrat.
Republicans saw the Wednesday hearing by the Democratic-controlled judiciary committee as a partisan ploy; Crist attacked Scott’s election record but failed to mention that local governments bore some blame for failing to equip precincts to handle the crush of voters who needed extra time to vote the extra-long ballot this year.
Some voters dropped out of early-voting lines because of the long waits, only to encounter similar lines 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.
Scott, on CNN, held up a copy of Miami-Dade’s 12-page ballot and said that was one of a few problems.
“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.
When CNN’s Soledad O’Brien pointed out the Quinnipiac poll numbers and asked Scott whether he bore any blame for the problems, the governor said: “I complied with the law.”
Hours later, Crist’s fellow Democrat, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, gave testimony at the Senate judiciary hearing and faulted the Republicans who controlled Florida for passing an election law that was “politically motivated.”
Nelson said the law was “clearly designed to disenfranchise likely Democratic voters and not, as the Republican sponsors in the Legislature contended, to prevent voter fraud.”
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,’” Nelson said.
But 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 said.
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 from the rolls — an inflated number. Scott’s elections division initially identified a potential pool of 200,000 possible noncitizens, 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.
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 2007-11.
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.”