By Dan Gelber
Why were the lines so obscenely long?
Because the state legislature wanted them long, and there was little anyone could do to stop them.
This was not an accident or poor planning. Hoping to dissuade Democratic-leaning voters from being counted, the legislature intentionally reduced early voting periods and placed on the ballot exceedingly long and multi-part amendments. This witches brew of less time to vote and a longer ballot to review produced a voting system that failed its primary function, namely, to provide citizens with a meaningful opportunity to cast their vote.
Under current law there was little Florida’s citizens could do to protect themselves from this arrogant overreaching by their legislature.
That is why I believe our citizens need to take the extraordinary step of enshrining in our state constitution an amendment that guarantees every citizen meaningful voter access.
Yes, it’s very sad that the citizens of our state need their rights protected from their own government. But if there is anything this last election has taught us, it’s that our right to vote is clearly imperiled in Florida.
I propose adding a new section to Article VI of the state constitution, which would include language guaranteeing to every Floridian the right to meaningful voter access and opportunity. A provision that would ensure — notwithstanding the excesses of our own elected officials — that we have sufficient personnel, equipment and locations and that elections are convenient and orderly.
If citizens adopt it, this provision would give Florida courts jurisdiction to make sure the legislature and county election supervisors provide an orderly voting process. Citizens would have a remedy, and judges would be empowered to order counties or state officials to provide adequate voting booths, expand early voting periods and make sure people don’t have to endure long lines to vote.
In Florida this change is necessary. Gov. Rick Scott’s recent announcement that he intends to look into what happened in the last election is ironic because he needs to look no further than the mirror. Everything that happened on election day – shorter voting periods, longer ballots, limited early-voting sites and the horrendous lines – was Gov. Scott’s (and the Republican Legislature’s) doing. One proponent of the election bill proudly declared during debate, “I don’t have a problem making it harder to vote.”
How about this as a recommendation. Governor: Don’t suppress the vote!
But we cannot trust that will happen. For more than a decade, Republican legislators and governors have repeatedly manipulated voting procedures here to gain advantages at the polls.
Courts declared some of their misguided efforts – like artificially making it harder to register voters — unconstitutional and contrary to federal law. But much of what they have done – like purposely creating long waiting periods in early voting because democratic- leaning voters tend to early vote – remained outside the protection of federal courts because only a few of Florida’s counties stand under the umbrella of the federal Voting Rights Act.
So while I applaud organizations and individuals who recommend the state move forward with election reforms, Florida will stillremain at the mercy of our legislature. Citizens on line at polls last week know to expect little mercy from there.
So while there are already many well intended groups putting together proposed reforms and blue-ribbon recommendations, let’s not pretend this happened because the legislature or Gov. Scott didn’t have enough proposals on how to run an election.
A constitutional right to meaningful voter access will change this dynamic and shift the power to citizens. I recognize there’s already too much in Florida’s Constitution lacking the weight of true constitutional principles. But few rights are as essential as voting and none is as fundamental to a working democracy.
Dan Gelber was a State Senator and former House Democratic Leader from Miami.