Sharp exchanges mark partisan divide on Florida election reform

In a predictably lively discussion that began with the provocative question, “Is Florida Rigging the 2012 Election?” the panelists on a Sun Sentinel-sponsored public forum held firm in their positions and sought to educate an engaged audience on Florida election reform and fraud.

In his welcoming remarks to the crowd at Lynn University, Doug Lyons, moderator and senior editorial writer at the Sun Sentinel, predicted that the night would offer a spirited debate about the recent changes in Florida laws. He was right.

Of course, the evening got off on a controversial note even before it began. The “rigging” question, part of a Sun Sentinel ad promoting Wednesday’s event, was considered by many readers to be inflammatory. Lyons, though, took the time at the forum’s start to explain that the newspaper meant no offense but was trying for a provocative conversation starter. It was provocative enough to start a chain of events that landed BizpacReview.com President Jack Furnari on the panel as the lone Republican. Furnari wrote about the evolution of his invitation to Wednesday’s forum in the post, “Sid Dinerstein busts up liberal election forum.”

Not long after the formal introductions were made, Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher listed what she described as the major flaws in the law HB 1355 and the substantial impact she said it will have on the upcoming elections.

Bucher’s main argument was that it was her job to bring voters to the polls, and that such laws were making it more difficult for her to do so. But her points were quickly refuted by Furnari, who centered his message on personal responsibility and his assertion that signing up to vote could not be any easier under current laws. Furnari also disagreed that Bucher’s role is to attract people to the polls, saying that was up to the individual, not a government official.

The other members on the panel – Lynn University professor Robert Watson, Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes and Mary Jane Range of the League of Women Voters – all took a stand against the legislation. Topics included restoration of rights for convicted felons, new district boundaries and the requirements for individuals or groups registering voters. The shortened period for early voting was another hot topic raised repeatedly throughout the evening.

The four Democratic panelists were unified in their opposition to the election law, saying such legislation makes it more difficult to register voters. Furnari, though, disagreed, taking issue with the characterization of the law as a form of voter suppression. Several times, he stressed that voting is already a simple task and suggested that many voters may be uncomfortable with convicted felons being allowed to vote too soon after incarceration.

The audience was eager to speak up, especially on the lone Republican’s point of view. One spectator, when presented with the microphone to ask a question, called Furnari’s claims of voter fraud “ludicrous.” Another asked the GOP strategist if he was an “elitist,” to which Furnari responded, “When you hear this accent, does it sound like I graduated from Harvard?”

One audience member made an impression when he asked the panel if it cared at all about the quality of votes, and not just the quantity. Dmitry Levin, a Boca Raton Republican and native of Russia, recounted the voting process in the old Soviet Union.

“The rate of voting was 99 percent,” he said. “The KGB dragged everyone out by their feet from home and brought them to polls, where there was just one candidate. Is that the system in which you are trying to implement?”

In a later interview, Levin told BPR, “Obviously, voting is a right; it is not an obligation. If someone doesn’t know how to vote, doesn’t care, why should we drag him or her by the feet and have uninformed voters to vote at all?”

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