TAMPA -- With Florida Republicans set to vote Tuesday for their preferred presidential nominee -- almost surely Mitt Romney -- Democrats chose Friday to put on a political show-trial accusing Republicans of attempting to deny the vote to blacks, the young, the elderly, and selected other Democratic constituencies (no mention yet of widows and orphans, but it's early).
The show took place at the Hillsborough County Court House in downtown Tampa Friday, and it starred Democratic U.S. Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Bill Nelson of Florida, along with a supporting cast of useful witnesses who (as we have learned to say) stayed on message.
Nelson, seeking re-election this year, has charged that changes made by the heavily Republican Florida Legislature last year to Florida's voter laws are nothing short of attempts at voter suppression, suppression that strikes at the very heart of democracy and self-government. Durbin used his Senate Judiciary subcommittee to orchestrate this overwrought charge by holding a hearing Friday in which witness after witness repeated the Democratic talking points. I've been to pep rallies that were less one-sided.
Republicans, including the legislative sponsors of the legislation, spokesmen for the Florida Secretary of State's and the governor's office, and the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, say the charges are bogus -- cheap and transparent political theater. The laws were changed to save some election expense and to guard against voter fraud, they say, and do not prevent anyone from registering and voting.
The Durbin/Nelson rodeo got going Friday morning in front of the courthouse with the usual demonstrators with quaint costumes and loudspeakers forecasting the end of self-government if these evil laws are not struck from the books. Scattered among the college students and various leftist indignatos were a few counter-demonstrators who weren't going along with the gag. Most of these thought Nelson, rather than Florida's new voting laws, should go.
Dueling signs carried such messages as: "Those who fear our votes don't deserve our votes," and "Buh bye Bill Nelson." There were several rat-bags with signs indicating they were "part of the 99 percent" (of what, their appearance did not make clear). And there was one lonely guy whose sign carried this universal but ambiguous message: "The joke's on us."
Retiree Lew Green of Apollo Beach thought he knew what the joke was. He didn't miss the irony of a senator from Illinois, with its colorful history of voting practices, lecturing Floridians on how to vote. "I'm from Chicago," Lew told me. "I can't wait till I die so I can go back home to vote."
So what's the ostensible cause of all this heavy breathing on the part of Nelson, Durbin, et al.? No, the poll tax hasn't been re-instated. The legislature, however, did cut early voting days in Florida from 14 to eight, but added evening and weekend hours so plenty of non-work hours are available to all voters. The time that third-party registration outfits have to turn in voter paper work to supervisors of elections offices was more than cut in half and penalties added for late filing.
That's it. Inside the court house, witness after witness said what Nelson and Durbin wanted to hear, that the new arrangements leave blacks and Hispanics and students and the elderly at wits end as how to ever register and cast a vote. No mention that Florida counties have multiple supervisor of elections offices and that other venues, Department of Motor Vehicles offices and public libraries to name just two, are available for the eligible to register or to deal with matters such as address changes.
There's ample time to deal with these matters before elections. But Friday's witnesses, many from various racial and ethnic grievance groups, panted that this minimal level of responsibility required on the part of potential voters is just too big an obstacle for their constituencies. One witness shot the moon by saying the new laws were worse than Jim Crow, an absolutely knee-buckling thing to say, not just because the guy saying it wasn't even born when Jim Crow, a truly nasty fellow, was run out of town. Neither Durbin nor Nelson had anything to say about this remarkable assertion. Apparently when accusing Republicans of perfidy, there is no upper limit, no credibility test at all. One is justified in wondering if there would have been even a ripple if a witness had claimed the new law requires poll workers to eat Democrats if they attempted to vote.
At the end of the proceedings, the spinning of the issue complete, the unanswered charges laid out in breathless detail, Nelson said, "Mr. Chairman, I think that rule of law has been assaulted here in this state by this election law under the pretense of election fraud." There was indeed a good deal of pretense going on in Tampa on Friday. But not the kind Nelson wants the world to believe. The purpose of the "hearing" was clearly not to gather information but to deliver a point of view. If anything was assaulted, it was common sense.
For the most part the mainstream media in Florida played their assigned role in this charade. No matter how transparently overwrought and politically motivated the charges are, Florida reporters mostly rose to the bait, as Nelson knew they would. News outlets took the charges seriously in newspaper stories and TV stand-ups, rarely quoting anyone on the other side of the issue.
Florida isn't the only state in the voting law hot seat this year. Durbin said his subcommittee will be looking at the laws of more than 30 states in search of similar frontal attacks on the franchise. His ministry will be supported by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who has crooned about how evil Republicans are attempting to require Democratic voters to meet unreasonable standards at the polls, like having to show a photo I.D. to ensure the voter is who he represents himself to be. (Yes, a photo I.D. The same thing many Americans have to show to cash a check or to buy a six-pack of beer.)
When services were over Friday after two-plus hours of fantastical testimony, I felt like I'd been at the Queen of Heart's court with the Mad Hatter as bailiff. But I ask for no sympathy from TAS readers. Further, I caution those on the mainland not to just enjoy a laugh at Florida's expense and move on. This political circus may soon be coming to a courthouse near you.
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