Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. (Pic by jonworth, via Flickr)

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., announced today that the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Rights will conduct a field hearing on Florida’s controversial new voting restrictions in Tampa on Jan. 27 — just days before voters head to the polls for the 2012 presidential primary.

Nelson requested the hearing in an October letter sent to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. He asked Durbin to conduct an investigation in order to determine whether Florida’s new restrictions were part of “an orchestrated effort to disenfranchise voters.”

Nelson later asked Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate Florida’s new law, which limits early voting days, creates new regulations for third-party voter registration drives and shortens the shelf life for ballot initiative signatures, among other provisions.

According to a press release from Nelson’s office, the senator expects to hear testimony from the state lawmakers who pushed the new law through, as well as Gov. Rick Scott:

Hillsborough County is one of five Florida counties where changes to state voting laws must be cleared by the Justice Department because of past racial conditions that could have undermined voting rights. And, Nelson said, “The community has many diverse groups of voters that might be affected the most under Florida’s new law, like seniors, young voters and minorities. One recent and credible study says new laws like Florida’s could suppress millions of votes nationwide in the 2012 election.”

Since its passage earlier this year, the law in Florida already has resulted in the nonpartisan Florida League of Women Voters abandoning its voter registration drive after 72 years. And two high school teachers have run afoul of the law after trying to preregister some of their students.

Among other changes, the law reduces the time for early voting in Florida from 14 days to eight and requires voters who want to give a new county address at the polls to use a type of ballot less likely to be counted. Seniors like early voting and college students change their addresses frequently. The law also requires those who sign up new voters to first register with the state and then submit all voter applications within 48 hours. It subjects people like the schoolteachers to hefty fines even for inadvertent mistakes.

There are numerous critics of the law, including the League of Women Voters, NAACP and the Hispanic advocacy group National Council of La Raza.  They contend Florida’s new law and similar measures in a number of other states are designed to suppress the votes of people who tend to vote against the GOP – most notably seniors, young voters and minorities.

The hearing in Tampa is expected to seek testimony from state lawmakers who were behind the voting bill and Gov. Rick Scott who signed it into law. Others witness could include local supervisors of elections and representatives of voter advocacy groups.

News of Tampa as the location for the hearing comes as legal challenges are mounting to some of the new voting laws in a dozen states including Florida, and on the heels of the first major study of the issue. A study completed in October by The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law found that these new laws taken together could make it significantly harder for more than five-million eligible voters in numerous states to cast their ballots in 2012.

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