A plan for real election reform in Florida

Gov. Rick Scott has announced that he now supports reforms to address problems voters faced during the November elections.

“Our ultimate goal must be to restore Floridians’ confidence in our election system. We must continually push to make improvements,” he said. He wants shorter ballots, more early voting locations and more early voting hours and days.

These bare bones need flesh. Will ballots be shortened by requiring the Legislature to adhere to the same 75-word limit as required for ballot summaries of citizen-initiated constitutional amendments? Will he allow county supervisors of elections discretion to identify appropriate early voting sites for their communities? Will he support a uniform number of early voting days and hours, permitting early voting on the Sundays before election days?

Of course, candor dictates that the reforms the governor now supports will simply undo the problems created as a result of him signing the 2011 Legislature’s HB 1355 into law (aka The Voter Suppression Act).

Candor also dictates making clear that the shift in policy comes after the governor has spent almost two years (and a reported half-million dollars in state funds) defending voter suppression laws against several lawsuits, including some filed by the ACLU.

Sure, there’s a lot of anger, especially from voters who heroically stood in line for hours — even after the presidential election had been called — and who were determined not to allow the Legislature’s attempted election manipulation to deprive them of their right to vote.

But if all we do is address the problems voters endured in November, we will have lost the opportunity to address badly needed reforms.

Just undoing restrictions imposed by the Legislature and returning to the way it was before the governor signed HB 1355 into law is not a program for election reform.

• Voter registration: The Legislature should explore strategies for government to bear the responsibility to register all eligible voters. State agencies should register their clients, and programs to preregister 16-year-old students in school should be supported and increased statewide.

Online voter registration, already used in 15 states, should be employed here too. It is convenient, and reduces cost and errors that come from misinterpreting handwritten forms.

Ubiquitous digital communication allows the state to employ same-day voter registration or, at the very least, shorten the period to register to vote from Florida’s traditional 30 days prior to an election.

• Ballot design: The governor has called for shorter ballots. Good, but the state should also consider an easy-to-read, uniform ballot design to reduce voter confusion.

• Voter identification: The state should expand the list of approved identification a voter can use at the polls. If a voter does not have a suitable photo ID, the state should issue a state ID at no cost.

• Address changes: The Legislature should restore the right of voters who move from county to county to update their address at the polls on Election Day and vote a regular ballot.

• Voter disfranchisement: The Legislature should change the law that mandates discarding the entire ballot of an eligible voter if a provisional ballot is cast in the wrong precinct. This absurd law disfranchises voters who make an inadvertent mistake or follow incorrect information by a poll worker. How could we allow the votes of eligible registered voters for president, U.S. senator or governor to be discarded because their provisional ballot was cast in the wrong precinct?

• Felon Disfranchisement: Florida’s principal restriction on the right to vote remains the system of lifetime felon disfranchisement. Any discussion that honestly addresses voting problems and voter suppression must address felon disfranchisement.

As of 2010, there were more than 1.5 million disfranchised former felons in Florida. Our state has the nation’s highest rate of African-American disfranchisement (23 percent) — more than one in five African-Americans in Florida have been disenfranchised.

In March 2011, the governor and the Cabinet issued new rules that made this scandalous remnant of Florida’s Civil War history worse. The governor should also shift direction on the Restoration of Civil (and voting) Rights.

Addressing voter anger over laws that contributed to the chaos of the 2012 election should not be the only voting reforms the state makes.

That would be a missed opportunity.