Election Reformers in Florida Deny Changes Will Intimidate Minorities

By Jason Pierce | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Florida's House Speaker Thursday defended the state's election reforms package against charges that it will intimidate poor voters and those from minority groups. The reforms were hammered out by the state legislature following Florida's presidential ballot controversy in 2000.

A voters' rights group contends the election law changes in Florida would actually discourage minorities and poor people from voting by creating "a literacy test," and are a reminder of the "Jim Crow" laws that several Southern states once had on their books, which legalized racial segregation.

The Florida Voter's League has sued the state to stop it from implementing some of the changes, citing, in its argument, provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which banned any polling requirements related to a voter's "ability to read, write, understand or interpret" subject matter.

Florida's new election reforms would create a ten-point list of responsibilities for voters, requiring that, among other things, they study and know candidates and issues, bring proper identification to the polling station and check their ballots for accuracy.

"We believe that the voter responsibilities section of that act is a step so far backward as to be a literacy test," said JoNel Newman, a lawyer with the Florida Equal Voting Rights Project, a project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

However, those responsible for introducing the changes and pushing them through the Florida legislature, say the reforms do not demean voters. Instead, Florida's Republican House Speaker, Tom Feeney, says the idea that voters aren't intelligent enough to take basic responsibility at the polls does demean them.

"To allege that minorities will be offended or intimidated at the suggestion that they become familiar with candidates and issues is demeaning to the capabilities of those minorities," Feeney said.

Darryl Paulson, a professor of government at the University of South Florida and an expert on election law, said the intentions of the legislature were genuine and in no way were meant to be discriminatory.

"The intent of the legislature was clearly to improve the quality of elections in Florida and pointing out, of course, that voting is a right, and that with any right comes responsibility," Paulson said. "At the very least, it is an effort where there's an intent on the part of the legislature to do a very positive thing, which [the Florida Voter's League] has managed to put in a negative light."

Paulson said Florida has been recognized, since the election reforms bill was passed, for being among the first states to deal with election problems. However, now, he said, it is up to the voters to take responsibility for their actions at the polls.

"They are trying to fulfill their obligations, to say 'we are not the only ones involved in this process, the voters have to have some responsibility, too. We welcome the right to vote, but you have the responsibility to know how the machinery works,'" Paulson said.