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African-American leaders push for greater changes in voter reform efforts

Representatives of several groups, including clergy, student and civil rights organizations, say election reform bills under consideration in the Legislature don't go far enough to fix an election process that was marred by long lines, confusion and controversy in the fall.

“We have a process where a 102-year-old woman is standing in line” for hours, said attorney Phelicia Stiell,  local chair of the National Congress of Black Women, referring to Desiline Victor of Miami, who waited more than three hours to cast her ballot Nov. 6.  

Stiell, Elder Terry Price of the Tallahassee Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, William Tucker of the NAACP and FAMU student Ciara Taylor of Dream Defenders, a Florida coalition of young people of color, were the speakers during a press conference Thursday morning outside the Leon County Supervisor of Elections Office, across from the state Capital.

The election process, Stiell said, is “broken.”

With the legislative session starting next week, African-American community leaders are concerned that there hasn't yet been a lot of public testimony in bill hearings. And they want to be sure their voices are heard. 

"We know what is percolating in the House and we feel positive about that," Stiell said. "We want the Senate to follow suit. …but there is still work to be done."

A bipartisan-backed measure is headed for a House floor vote in the upcoming session that allows Florida’s elections supervisors to conduct early voting from eight to 14 days for eight to 12 hours per day, for a mininum of 64 hours and a maximum of 168 hours (72 more hours than under the curent law) and it gives supervisors a greater choice of early voting sites.

Voting changes passed two years ago, which many blame for problems in the fall election, reduced the number of early voting days from 14 to eight and eliminated early voting on the Sunday before the general election.

The proposed House bill leaves Sunday voting before the general election up to the discretion of the Supervisor of Elections office in each county.

While he’s a longtime supporter of early voting, starting the practice in Tallahassee in 1994, Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho said election supervisors know the needs of their communities.  “One size does not fit all,” he said. Early voting as we know it, officially began statewide in 2004.

The Sunday before the election is "is the day when our communities have traditionally marched to the polls,”  said Price, referring to a voting effort dubbed Souls to the Polls.

Stiell said election rights should be "across the board. It should not be one county has these hours and days and another does not."

"We want the Legislature to know that it's an important day to vote for a large group of people that they serve," Price said.

Among other voting issues of concern to the groups: Reinstituting voting rights for felons who have served their sentences and undoing a change that kept voters who have moved from one county to another from changing their addresses at the polls.