"Awake the State" groups met in 22 cities, including Tampa's Lykes Gaslight Park where an estimated 150 people spoke out for election reform. The rally came just hours after the House voted 118-1 to approve a measure that would rescind much of the controversial 2011 elections bill. Included are increasing early voting days from eight to 14; increasing the number of eligible sites for early-voting; and limiting the ballot summaries on constitutional amendments proposed by the Legislature to 75 words, the same cap faced by citizen initiatives.
Joyce Hamilton Henry with the ACLU told the crowd that the Senate needs to further expand the franchise.
"We also want to see that we allow electronic online voting. We need to go to the 21st century in voting, we want to be able to have same day voter registration," she said.
Hamilton Henry said she hates to say "I told you so," but her organization (and many others) pleaded with the Legislature to vote down HB 1355 two years ago. The bill reduced early voting days, limited the time that third party groups could register new voters, and made it harder for citizens who moved since the last election to vote on a regular ballot at the polls.
She also mentioned an issue that the ACLU has taken the lead on since 2000 — restoring voting rights to ex-felons who have paid their debt to society.
"We're talking about individuals who have served their time and are back in the community, good productive citizens who have been disenfranchised," Hamilton Henry said, adding that under the current system in Florida, "it will take them anywhere from seven to 12 years under the new rules to be able to get their rights restored. That is unacceptable."
This past November, Florida made national headlines once again for its electoral dysfunctions, particularly extraordinarily long lines in mostly South Florida counties.
"Nobody should have to wait hours to vote. We cannot change the past, but we can demand that 2012 never happens again," said Awake Tampa organizer, Michael Long.
Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer was the only public official to speak at the rally (though Tampa City Council members Lisa Montelione and Mary Mulhern were in attendance). He boasted about how his office — where he served as chief of staff the past four years before being elected in November — received little criticism for having long voting lines, and that 62 percent of Hillsborough voters took advantage of early voting.
Latimer also said it was important to give supervisors of election the "flexibility" of using anywhere between eight to 14 days for early voting, and it makes no sense to mandate that smaller counties in the Panhandle be required to stay open for that long when they won't have as much of a demand as bigger regions.
The Sierra Club's Phil Compton slammed the GOP-led Legislature for passing HB 1355, which he said was designed to suppress the vote. He maintained that "it was no accident that people stood in line hours to vote" on Election Day. He then segued into one of his group's chief causes: advocating for public transportation.
"Sometimes you get to vote directly on issues that affect your life," he said, advocating that citizens attend a March 20 Hillsborough County Commission meeting about transportation options.
Unlike two years ago when the Awake Florida movement began, activists in Tampa concentrated solely on voting issues, though undoubtedly they have more to take up with Gov. Scott and the Legislature.
Jean Clements with the Hillsborough County Teachers Association said she's certain that Awake activists will hold at least one more rally in Lykes Gaslight before the legislative session ends. She said it will be about education and other important topics.
"We can't change the world for our schools, we can't change the budgets in our schools if we can't change who's in Tallahassee and how they think. So voter access is important," she said.
Some Democrats in Tallahassee praised the bill that passed today, but Scott Arceneaux — Florida Democratic Party Executive Director — didn't.
"House Republicans today failed to pass serious and substantive elections reform with the passage of HB 7013. Rick Scott and the GOP are responsible for breaking Florida's elections system with the passage of the voter suppression law and today's vote shows their unwillingness to undo the damage they caused," he said.