Florida Voter Suppression Bill Toxic for Democracy

The Florida legislature just passed House Bill 1355, which many civic participation advocates view as part of a worrisome national trend to suppress voting. Florida college students, military personnel, low-income and minority voters and anyone who might change addresses between elections are all raising their voices in opposition to this bill. And for good reason. These Floridians will have the hardest time exercising their right to vote if these bills become law, according to experts.

Today, just as the bill proceeds to Governor Rick Scott's desk, add one more group to the growing list of concerned citizens: doctors. Why?

First, these proposed laws will make it harder for many patients to have a voice in the democratic process. For instance, they target nonpartisan voter registration groups, many of which serve as a civic lifeline for underrepresented low-income and minority communities. By requiring volunteers to return signed voter forms within two days under threat of steep financial and criminal penalties, these bills will have a chilling effect on voter registration assistance.

Similar measures would require anyone whose address may have changed since they registered to vote, such as college students or military personnel, or whose name may have changed, such as newly married women, to cast a provisional ballot on Election Day instead of a regular ballot. But provisional ballots are not are always counted. In 2008, 51 percent of provisional ballots were not counted in

House Bill 1355 will also make it harder for doctors and other health professionals to vote.

In the four national elections before 2008, University of Pennsylvania researchers found that physicians, on average, voted 9 percent less often than the general public and 22 percent less often than lawyers. One reason for this low turnout may be doctors' demanding work schedules, which can make it challenging to wait in long lines on Election Day. That's why doctors, like most citizens with busy schedules, benefit from initiatives in Florida and elsewhere that have made early voting possible.

Early voting doesn't guarantee that eligible Americans will vote, but it helps. In fact, about 40 million people nationwide, including about a third of Florida voters, cast their ballots before Election Day in 2008. Evidence suggests that early voting strengthens our democracy by making voting easier, bringing more people into the democratic process, reducing congestion at polling places on Election Day and maybe even decreasing the effectiveness of last-minute negative political attacks.

Despite these benefits, some Florida legislators are proposing to cut the window of early voting from 15 days to seven for partisan reasons, thinly veiled behind anemic arguments of cost savings. Partisan politics should not be an excuse to limit the opportunity of doctors and other busy citizens to exercise their right to vote.

All in all, Florida House Bill 1355 would mean fewer state residents, especially the most vulnerable, would have their voices heard in local, state and national debates on issues that matter. Health, for instance, not only depends on the care we receive but also on whether we have opportunities to shape health where it begins -- where we live, work, eat and play. Under these bills, these opportunities to have our voices heard would be curtailed. Regardless of your politics, that's not healthy for our communities and democracy.

Some may argue that these draconian bills are necessary to curb voter fraud. But the facts don't support that argument.

Between January 2008 and March 2011, there were 31 cases of alleged voter fraud referred to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Only three resulted in arrests. It is more likely that a person will be struck by lightning than be impersonated by another voter at the polls.

Instead, these bills will simply help some amass power by taking the opportunity to vote from others, including doctors, young folks and other citizens. That's a toxic overdose of partisan politics, not a prescription for a healthy democracy.

This post is adapted from the author's May 6th op-ed in the Tampa Tribune.