Political Hay

Durbin Mischief

Democrat Dick is taking his dog and pony show of cynicism to Tampa this week. 

By 1.24.12

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TAMPA – The Republican presidential debate last night in Tampa is not the only political theater here this week.

A much less edifying political event will be Friday's dog and pony show in the Hillsborough County courthouse, put on by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights. A ton of political mischief can be dealt under these labels. And mischief is all the hearing, chaired by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, will be.

The ostensible reason for the hearing is to explore whether new voting laws, adopted by the heavily Republican Florida Legislature last year, are designed to keep Democratic constituencies from the polls. Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson has flatly made this charge, and easily enlisted Durbin to orchestrate the gag. In fact, the purpose of the hearings is to portray Republicans as rich, white racists and all-around meanies and cheats who want to keep Democrats, especially minorities, away from the polls.

In a press release from Nelson, who is running for re-election this year, we get these febrile charges: "The right to vote is, and always has been, at the foundation of our democracy. But this fundamental right is under serious attack right now, in Florida and more than a dozen other states. Many believe a handful of super-rich conservative activists are behind an orchestrated effort to keep millions of seniors, younger voters, and minorities from casting ballots next year."

Wow. Pretty overwrought stuff, deserving of elaboration. But I could get none from the accusers. Neither Nelson nor Durbin have said how these new laws, and others in other states, operate to keep minorities, et al. away from the polls. I've left five detailed messages with Nelson's office asking for clarification and seeking to learn if Nelson himself believes "a handful of super-rich conservative activists are behind an orchestrated effort to keep millions of seniors, younger voters, and minorities from casting ballots next years." Sure would like to know the names of these rich rascals. No call back. 

I did manage to reach Max Gleischman, Durbin's communications director, and he answered some questions. Unfortunately, they weren't the ones I asked. He bobbed and weaved around the question of what triggered the hearings, what specifically would make Senator Nelson believe the new laws would keep minorities and other Democratic constituencies from the polls. Surely they don't hold hearings on all new election laws on speculation that they might keep people from voting.

Asked what about the Florida laws worried Durbin and Nelson, Gleischman said he would not "get into specifics now," but said the subcommittee planned to look into Florida's law and those of about 30 states.

"We're concerned about several laws that changed existing laws," Gleischman said. "Some are more restrictive than the previous laws. Some laws have made it more difficult to register." He would not say how Florida's new laws make registering or voting difficult, which is manifestly isn't.

Then followed a charming flute solo on how everyone in America who is qualified to vote should have that opportunity and everyone "regardless of…" and so forth (cue the violins). It would be hard to find anyone, in whatever party, who would argue with these sentiments. But they have nothing to do with Florida's new voter laws.

In order to save some money and to guard against voter fraud, the Florida Legislature last year reduced the number of early voting days from 14 to eight but increased evening and weekend hours. (How did we get things done just a few years ago when everyone had to vote on Election Day?) The new laws also reduce the amount of time third party registration outfits have to turn in paper work on voters.

It's hard to imagine how any of this keeps minorities or young people from registering and voting, which are manifestly easy to do in Florida. Hillsborough County (Tampa), as an example, allows qualified citizens to register in four supervisor of elections offices, public libraries, Department of Motor Vehicles offices, et al. Citizens who can't make their way to one of these many venues in the ample time allotted for registering cannot possibly consider the franchise very important.

Although Nelson's office remains illusive, I was able to talk to spokesmen in Florida Governor Rick Scott's Office, the Florida Secretary of State's office (which administers voting in Florida), and the chief sponsor of the bill in the Florida House. None had any idea on what, other than electoral politics, Nelson and Durbin were getting on about.

Lenny Curry of Jacksonville, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said the charges in the hearings are just “Democrats trying to stir the pot and create resentments because they have nothing to say on the important issues.” He calls the whole business “straight politics and nothing else.”

Curry said the issue of voter fraud is an important one and fraud has taken place in Florida. He said the changes in Florida’s voting laws don’t stop anyone from voting, or even inconvenience them.

“No amount of voter fraud is acceptable,” Curry said. “You have to be able to trust the vote. We’re only getting stuff like this because hope and change didn’t work out.”

The invite list for the hearing has not been made pubic yet. But we expect it will be the usual suspects – left ideological groups and various indignatos eager to make baseless charges the mainstream media will act as megaphones for. Look also for well-intentioned but easily excitable groups like The League of Women Voters. We can hope a majority of Florida voters are smart enough to see through this, even if the state's editorial writers aren't.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.