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Awake the State rally a sign of frustrated voters

While House representatives were voting on the Florida Election Code late Tuesday afternoon, a crowd of protestors rallied on the steps outside the old Capital building blasting a flawed 2012 election, with songs, signs and plenty of speeches.

The Tallahassee event was part of Awake the State -- Free the Vote grassroots rallies in 23 Florida communities, with appearances by four Democratic senators: Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth, Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens and Dwight Bullard of Miami. Other speakers included Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho, students and representatives of the Dream Defenders, Florida NOW, the AFL-CIO and other groups.

  "The point is to send a clear message to the Legislature that we want to see meaningful election reform during the legislative session," said Damien Filer, of Progress Florida, organizers of Awake the State. 

"The sad thing is that what we're really asking for here with most of these provisions is just to go back to the things were," he said. "We're not asking for anything new. We're just asking them to undo the damage they did in 2011."

  Three key points, organizers said are 1) Expanding the number of early voting days back to 14 and allowing 12 hours per day while giving election supervisors more flexibility in opening new polling locations. 2) Reinstitute the 75-word cap on constitutional amendments proposed by the legislature, just as citizen-led initiatives are capped. 3) Voters should be able to update their voter registration address on Election Day if they move from one county to another, just as they could prior to 2011.

   Voting changes passed two years ago reduced the number of early voting days from 14 to eight and eliminated early voting on the Sunday before the general election. It also kept voters who have moved from one county to another from changing their addresses at the polls, which had a big impact on college students. 

  Sancho said the House legislation (HB 7013), which representatives passed Tuesday afternoon, "goes about 80 percent toward restoring what we need" to restore Florida's voting system. The Senate hasn't yet introduced its election bill. 

"What we haven't seen is an understanding that forcing so many young Floridians to vote by provisional ballot because they have not done an address change that's current has caused tremendous damage to the system," Sancho said. "Provisional ballots are an extraordinary ballot, a ballot of last resort, so forcing citizens to vote that way... was akin to pouring sand into gears of a machine. It won't break it, but it will slow it down considerably."

   Talking about the 2011 changes, Clemens said he tried to get an amendment passed that would have exempted college students and military from having to fill out a provisional ballot if they moved. "I was told that amendment was unfriendly," Clemens said. "The next time the bill came back it exempted military members and not college students. To me, that's ball-faced cheating."

 Carrying placards with messages like "Free the Vote," "Voter Supression Laws are Racist" and "Pink Slip Rick," protestors also criticized Gov. Rick Scott and the legislature's "anti-middle class policies" but the prime focus was on election reform.

 Smith, the Senate's Democratic leader, talked about the need for Medicaid expansion, giving pay raises to state workers who haven't had one in more than six years and "defending" the Everglades.

"There are great opportunities if you keep coming here, keep sending emails and letters," he told the crowd. "Make your voices heard."