The way elections are run in Florida is so significant and contentious, Gelber said, because it’s a large state that isn’t solidly Democratic or Republican. A relatively small shift of votes can determine who becomes governor or which presidential candidate gets the state’s 29 electoral votes – more than 10 percent of the total needed to win the White House.
The election issues were dissected in front of more than 150 politicians, lawyers and strategists at a campaign ethics conference at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens.
Gelber is a Democrat who used to represent part of south Broward. He said the Republicans who control Florida government have a pattern of implementing policies that attempt to make it less likely that members of potential Democratic voting blocs actually cast ballots.
He said that’s why Gov. Rick Scott’s administration tried to purge the voter rolls of suspected non-citizens in 2012, a move later ruled illegal by federal courts; why a voter roll purge was planned again for 2014 until it was canceled under pressure; and why early voting was scaled back for the 2012 presidential election. He said its part of a pattern dating back to the 2000 presidential election, when a problem plagued attempt to remove felons from the voting rolls was aimed at hurting Democrats.
(Gelber is a prominent supporter of former Gov. Charlie Crist who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Scott in November.)
Robert Fernandez, who was a deputy general counsel to former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, scoffed at Gelber for perpetuating conspiracy theories.
“I don’t think the sky is falling. I don’t think people are being denied the right to vote – certainly not intentionally,” Fernandez said.
In Gelber’s view that’s exactly what’s happening. “Most of the election laws that come out of the Legislature have an ulterior and mischievous purpose,” he said.
In 2012, the Republican-controlled Legislature and Scott reduced early voting – including eliminating it the Sunday before Election Day. That’s when black churches had traditionally run “souls to the polls” after services, which couldn’t happen during President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.
Fernandez said there weren’t “nefarious [reasons] that Dan would like to subscribe to about why there were long lines in 2012. Besides, he said, the Legislature and Scott have already repaired many of the problems that plagued early voting in 2012. Gelber said the post 2012 reforms – more days, hours and locations for early voting – were largely cleaning up the mess that embarrassed the state when it got national attention.
Fernandez said the Legislature can no longer fill the ballot with lengthy referendums, which slow down voting. Democrats said the reason the Republicans filled the 2012 ballot was to make voting take longer, discouraging some voters.
Fernandez also said there wasn’t much point in talking about the 2000 felon purge in 2014. Gelber said it shows a pattern.
Fernandez some of Gelber’s biggest complaints stem from sincere efforts to ensure the integrity of voting by making sure that only eligible citizens are allowed to vote. “You want to make sure nobody is denied access and you’ve got to make sure there’s integrity in the process.”
Gelber said that sounds appealing. The problem, he said, is that to ferret out a minuscule number of people who shouldn’t be voting, the state has used draconian measures that threatened to prevent many more legitimate voters from casting their ballots.
The back and forth, in which both looked at the same thing but saw something different, shows just how polarized politics and voting have become, said Charlton Copeland, a University of Miami law professor who moderated the Gelber-Fernandez panel.
Also at Friday’s conference, co-sponsored by the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics, Charles Zelden a professor of history and legal studies who specializes in politics and voting at Nova Southeastern University, said a unified, national voter registration would make elections run more effectively.
That’s unlikely to happen, he said, because state’s don’t want to give up the power to set the rules.