A mixed bag on new Florida election reform legislation

April 24, 2013 

Florida's Legislature is poised to undo some of the damage wrought by a 2011 elections law that placed unnecessary restrictions on voting but the current legislation still contains misguided provisions. With fewer early voting days and lengthy constitutional amendments on the ballot last November, the long lines and confusion at the polls brought shame on the state.

Today, the Senate is scheduled to vote on HB 7013 before sending it back to the House. Both chambers require only eight days of early voting but grant county elections supervisors permission to schedule up to 14 days, including the popular but then banned Sunday before election day. While that is an improvement, the discretion opens to door to mischief by a politically motivated elections supervisor.

And how can Florida justify different election schedules among the state's 67 counties? The potential for voter confusion in multi-county metropolitan centers should be taken into account. And multi-county political races could be influenced by differing early voting schedules in those districts.

State election law should provide consistency and certainty. Voters shouldn't be left wondering from election to election how many days balloting will occur. Fourteen days should be required.

One major improvement is allowing elections supervisors to increase the number of early voting polling places -- very important to sprawling places like Manatee County, which only offered one site in November. Lengthy lines discouraged voters.

Manatee County's new elections supervisor, former state Sen. Mike Bennett, lobbied lawmakers to include an expansion of polling sites. He's already planning to use three libraries for the June 18 special election, in which voters will cast ballots on a half-cent sales tax increase to fund indigent health care and on tax exemptions to new and expanding businesses.

The Senate also wisely returned to the 75-word limit on constitutional amendments written by the Legislature, this after several overly long measures peppered the 2012 ballot and left voters exhausted trying to understand the confusing language.

With absentee ballot elections fraud an issue in South Florida in November, the Senate bill requires voters to submit a signed request to secure such a ballot mailed to an address other than their home (with military and overseas exceptions). It also allows voters who neglected to sign absentee ballots to rectify the situation up until the Sunday before election day.

But two other provisions should be stricken from the bill. A political appointee, the secretary of state, should not be given the power to discipline duly elected county elections supervisors for mistakes.

The other unreasonable provision requires that people must be acquainted with voters they are seeking to assist, and nobody can help more than 10 voters during an election. That needlessly erects barriers to anyone dependent on language assistance, the disabled and the elderly -- all under the guise of thwarting voter intimidation.

Before convening, legislative leaders vowed to fix the onerous 2011 election law. While some of these reforms are welcome, there is plenty of room for improvement. And there's still time for voters to demand more from lawmakers.

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