Orange County's supervisor of elections, Bill Cowles, addresses the people attending a Town Hall meeting organized by state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando. (Photo by Vikki Hankins).

ORLANDO – Taking direct aim at a new Florida law that shortens the amount of time that Floridians have to vote early, and imposes penalties on voter registration groups that fail to file the required paperwork in a timely manner, a group of civil rights activists held a Town Hall meeting on Thursday night to raise awareness that they need to begin registering voters now.
“Over in the fellowship hall, we still have voter registration going on,” said Monica May, the host of the radio show Star 94.5, and the moderator of the Town Hall meeting held at the Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in Orlando. Earlier in the day, representatives from the office of Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles were on hand to register anyone who wanted to be added to the voter rolls.
May encouraged everyone attending the Town Hall meeting to take a few minutes to register there if they had not done so already.
“We are family,” she said. “We still have time to go over and vote now.”
The Town Hall meeting was organized by state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, who wanted to use the event to discuss several issues, including Florida’s new voting law, and tough new rules that require convicted felons to wait years before they can get their civil rights restored – including the right to vote.
“We are here tonight for a very important meeting,” Thompson said. “We wanted you to have the facts from the experts.”
Thompson is strongly opposed to a new law, signed by Gov. Rick Scott last March, that scales back from 14 days to 8 days the time Florida residents have for early voting, and imposes penalties on groups that register voters if they fail to quickly file all the paperwork required by the state. Opponents have charged that the law is purely partisan, designed to make it harder for low income people and minorities to get registered to vote – and, in all likelihood, vote Democratic. The Florida Legislature is solidly controlled by Republicans, who passed the bill.
May called the legislation an effort at “voter suppression,” and said Florida ranks among the top five states that make it most difficult for people to vote.
“People are just not sure about what’s going to happen in 2012,” she said.
One way to change that, said Pastor O’Hara C. Black, the senior pastor of the Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church, is to empower people by educating them.
During a prayer at the start of the Town Hall meeting, Black urged God to “help to give us knowledge, because knowledge is power.”
Thompson said she wanted to do just that, by inviting Cowles to attend the Town Hall meeting and explain the new laws to the crowd.
Cowles said one of the key measures in the new law is aimed at third party voter registration groups that travel to cities in different states to register voters, often in minority communities.
The new law, he said, imposes penalties if they do not file a myriad of paperwork on what they’re doing, and filing it in a timely manner.
“It’s to crack down on the outside groups coming into our state doing voter registration,” Cowles said. But even if the new law discourages outside groups from coming to Florida, Cowles said there are county government agencies that can do the same thing, just as effectively.
“There are organizations in the state, such as the library system, that are sites for voter registration,” he said.
Cowles added that his office would work with any organization that wants to register voters, and help make sure they comply with the new legislation.
“There are some groups that have registered as third party organizations,” he said. “It is going to be difficult for them. Our office is accessible and willing to work with groups that want to do voter registration drives.”
The law gives these groups just 48 hours to file their papers, Cowles said.
“We’re going to have to work together,” he said. “We need to share amongst ourselves creative ways to do this.”
The new law also says that if a voter changes his or her address, and moves from one county to another – and fail to notify their county election office about the address change – they can only fill out a provisional ballot. Cowles said that, too, would make his job tougher.
“That’s our mess,” he said. “We have to ask everyone, ‘Have you moved, is your address up to date?’ “
Cowles also pointed out that the law shortens the number of days for early voting, but said he would keep his elections office open on Sundays for absentee voting.
To learn more about early voting, call the Orange County Elections Office at 407-836-2070 or log on to Elections Office.
“Go to the office on Kaley Avenue, and get your questions asked early,” May said. “Handle your business as early as possible.”
Thompson said she hopes the Town Hall meeting inspires people to get active, and involved, in the upcoming election.
“This is a proactive community,” she said. “We have activists here.”

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