TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate reworked a major elections bill Tuesday to make it easier to vote early and absentee — and easier for the state to punish election supervisors who make mistakes.
Mindful of the chaos and long lines at the polls last fall, senators support increasing the number of early voting sites and giving election supervisors power to expand early voting from a minimum of eight days to a maximum of 14, including the Sunday right before the election.
For the first time in Florida, the Senate bill offers voters a second chance if they forget to sign their absentee ballot envelopes. Thousands of absentees were invalidated last fall because voters forgot to write their signatures, but the bill gives them until 5 p.m. on the Sunday before Election Day to correct the omission.
"This is a gigantic step forward in trying to make sure that people have the right to have their ballots counted," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the bill's sponsor.
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But a last-minute amendment by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, triggered new controversy. It gave Gov. Rick Scott's secretary of state the power to label election supervisors "noncompliant" for skipping deadlines or violating election rules, resulting in partial loss of pay and requiring them to take remedial training.
Diaz de la Portilla has been critical of Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Penelope Townsley's handling of the 2012 vote, saying the county had the longest lines because she opened too few early voting sites. He denied that his proposal was aimed only at Townsley and said it's also directed at four other counties the state said "underperformed" last fall.
"It's a performance enhancement issue to address any election dysfunction issue," Diaz de la Portilla said.
The idea was sarcastically ridiculed as "double-secret probation" by supervisors, who are elected countywide like sheriffs every four years. They said they resented the Legislature giving an unelected bureaucrat the power to sanction elected officials, and headed to the House in an attempt to strip the provision.
"It's making us subservient to a political appointee of Gov. Rick Scott — a Tallahassee bureaucrat," said Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley, a Republican. "It's horribly inappropriate."
Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards, a former Democratic House member, called it "heavy-handed and ham-fisted a typical inside Tallahassee back-room deal."
With the help of an endorsement from Latvala, the punitive language passed on a 22-18 vote, with five Republicans voting no and one Democrat, Sen. Gwen Margolis of Aventura, voting yes. The Senate delayed a final vote on the bill (HB 7013) until later, after which the bill will need to return to the House for another floor vote.
Fixing the problems that made Florida a national embarrassment last fall is a top priority of lawmakers. But Democrats say that the bill doesn't go far enough and that Republicans are missing an opportunity to make bigger improvements.
"Our election system broke," said Senate Democratic leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. "It's time to upgrade."
Democrats tried repeatedly to add more early voting sites, to require early voting on the Sunday before Election Day and to return to the pre-2011 law that allowed people who moved from another county to update their voting addresses on Election Day. Each time they failed.
Democrats protested a provision that restricts the amount of assistance voters can receive at the polls. A person offering to assist voters can only help 10 people and must know them before helping them.
"I think that would make it harder for people who can't understand English in my community, specifically in the Haitian community," said Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, who recalled a lack of Creole-speaking volunteers at voting sites in his district.
The voting rights group Florida New Majority in Miami has criticized the provision, saying it would discriminate against voters who can't speak English and may violate the federal Voting Rights Act that allows voters to choose who can help them with their ballots.
"This is one of the worst things for us when we're trying to heal the problems of the last election," said New Majority's Gihan Perera. He said his group trained volunteers to help voters in a "very nonpartisan and clean way."
Latvala held firm. He said the practice of volunteers at precincts offering to assist voters has become a "political tool" in some areas. "Folks are sitting at the polls all day," Latvala said, "in many cases in an intimidating fashion."