TALLAHASSEE -- President Barack Obama used a 102-year-old Florida woman who waited for hours to cast a ballot as an example of voting problems that need fixing, Jon Stewart used a profanity to describe Florida's elections process and Jay Leno suggested Floridians shouldn't even be allowed to vote on "American Idol."
Twelve years after Florida became the poster child for bad elections during the 2000 presidential recount, the state was once again held up as an example of how not to run an election. Now, lawmakers are once again trying to figure out how to eliminate long lines at polling places and count votes quickly and accurately. The annual 60-day legislative session begins March 5.
"I don't think any of us are happy or satisfied with being the butt of jokes on late night TV for our voting system," said Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who chairs the Ethics and Elections Committee.
The House and Senate and Democrats and Republicans appear to be in agreement on several issues as the chambers address election laws, including: expanding early voting to up to 14 days; allowing the option of early voting on the Sunday before Election Day; giving supervisors of elections more flexibility in choosing early voting sites; and requiring ballot questions proposed by the Legislature to have the same 75-word summary as those proposed by citizen petition.
The House and Senate are also working on ethics issues, including a way to stop lawmakers from misusing political committees to pay for wining, dining and travel that's unrelated to their jobs.
There's less agreement on how to approach that, with the House seeking to outlaw what are called Committees of Continuous Existence, or
CCEs, and the Senate looking to tighten rules that apply to them.
On elections, the Legislature will in some ways be reversing what it did two years ago. That's when the Republican-dominated Legislature cut early voting days from 14 days to eight and eliminated early voting on the Sunday before the election, when many black churches organized "souls to the polls" voting drives.
"I don't understand why they felt the need to cut the number of days to begin with when the trends were moving toward voters participating in the process much earlier," said Vicki Davis, the Martin County supervisor of elections and the president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections.
If you ask Democrats, the changes were made in 2011 to help defeat Obama. In 2008, Obama beat Republican John McCain by dominating in-person early voting. If that was the intention, it didn't work -- Obama again carried the state in 2012.
"We had a huge fiasco in November," said Democratic Party executive director Scott Arceneaux. "We need to admit that that was a partisan action in 2011 that Republicans did to try to basically game the system so they could get more votes and Democrats could get less."
It's an accusation Republicans have denied.
One area where the House and Senate disagree is on raising campaign contribution limits. The House has a proposal that would raise campaign contribution limits from $500 to $10,000 per election while getting rid of CCEs. Critics say the committees are often abused by lawmakers who create the committees, take huge donations from lobbyists and corporations, and then spend the bulk of the money on food, entertainment and travel.
The Senate is not proposing an increase on campaign contribution limits, but rather putting into law language designed to stop the abuses.
Senate President Don Gaetz said he is open to the idea of raising contribution limits, but isn't yet convinced it's the right idea because it may further take ordinary citizens away from the political process. The Niceville Republican used an example of a woman who lives in his district who donates $25 to each of his campaigns.
"She doesn't have much money, but that's important to her. I don't want her sense of her own role in the process obscured by somebody who writes a $2,500 check," Gaetz said. "There are politicians who would say, 'Look, I need $100,000. I can see five people and get five $20,000 contributions or I can go out there and go to fish fries and collect $5 contributions and $100 contributions.' I like the grassroots approach to fundraising, so I need to be persuaded that the process will be better if there are $10,000 and $20,000 limits."