Florida's election laws undergoing changes

Once again, Florida and its elections laws are being challenged in the courts.

The Republican-dominated Legislature passed several changes in the last week of the 2011 session, and Gov. Rick Scott (R.) signed the bill into law over the objections of thousands of citizens.

The Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights on Friday held a field hearing in Tampa on the state’s changes, suspecting that they are aimed at suppressing the vote -- specifically, the Democratic vote.

“The right to vote has come under question -- if not attack -- nationwide," said Subcommittee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Illinois.

“With what we went through in 2000 … we ought to be making it easier to cast our ballot and easier to register to vote,” said Senator Bill Nelson, D-Florida, referring to the historic presidential election recount decided in favor of George W. Bush by the U.S. Supreme Court. “And we're seeing the law, as enacted, just to do the opposite."

The most obvious change for Florida voters is early voting, which is currently under way for Tuesday's Republican primary.

Early voting has been reduced from two weeks to eight days and eliminated on the Sunday before Election Day in November.

In 2008, President Obama and Democrats benefited by a surge of minority votes on that Sunday.

“Any time you get a law that is reversed to reduce the number of persons -- in this case -- who can vote, of course that's Jim Crow at its best," said Adora Obi Nweze of Florida's NAACP. "Jim Crow, the wife, the children -- all of them; the whole Jim Crow family."

Republicans say this is not some "master plan" to suppress Democratic votes. Many GOP lawmakers are not talking about their intent, because they're under subpoena.

But the party chairman said the changes are about saving tax dollars and reducing voter fraud.

“If citizens don't have faith in one person, one vote, then elections mean nothing,” said Chairman Lenny Curry.”They have no value."

The League of Women Voters is suing Florida over the changes.

In protest, for the first time in 72 years it has suspended registering new voters.

“The impact so far has been to create a 10 percent drop, 10 point drop in the percent of registered voters in our state," said the League's Diedre McNab.

In total, 15 states have changed elections laws since 2008, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Those changes include cutting down on early voting, eliminating changing your registration at the polls and requiring a government-issue photo ID or proof of citizenship to cast your ballot.

The Florida lawsuit by the League of Women Voters, the NAACP and the ACLU is still in the discovery phase.

Another review is automatic, as required by 1965's Voting Rights Act for southern states, which had a history of voter intimidation and discrimination.

A three judge federal panel is expected to rule on Florida's elections law changes this spring, leaving plenty of time until November.