TALLAHASSEE -- U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio persuaded state lawmakers Friday to make a last-minute change eliminating Florida's early presidential primary -- in which the Republican could be on the ballot.
Rubio's main concern was shared by lawmakers and operatives from both parties: Ensuring that Florida's 2016 primary vote counts.
The measure, barely discussed, was tucked into an election-reform bill that passed the Legislature by wide margins Friday. The bill, which Gov. Rick Scott will likely sign, expands early voting hours and sites in order to alleviate long lines at the polls.
It would allow elections supervisors to hold up to 14 days of early voting instead of the current eight days. It also would expand sites where early voting can be held.
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The overall legislation was written in response to the 2012 election, in which peo
ple waited for hours to cast ballots during early voting and on Election Day.
Contributing to the mess: the Legislature, in 2011, cut back early-voting days and put lengthy constitutional amendments on the ballot. Also, some election supervisors were ill equipped or ill prepared.
Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett, who was elected last November, said he's leaning toward keeping the number of early voting days in Manatee at eight for the 2014 ballot but increasing the numbers of hours the polls would be open each day.
Bennett said many people travel long distances to vote. "You close the poll at 5 p.m., you're excluding a large number of people," he said Friday. "I'd opt for longer days," rather than more early-voting days.
Bennett also said three more polling sites have been added in Manatee County, all at area libraries, and even more may be added before the 2014 election day. Bennett also wanted to remind voters that some precincts have been changed and that voters should examine their voter registration cards before heading to the polls.
Bennett also said for the special referendum ballot June 18, there will be only one polling place -- the supervisor of elections office, at 600 301 Blvd. W, Suite 108, Bradenton.
He cited the need to train supervisors on new equipment. "We can train our people so when we have the Nov. 14  election, we will have gone through a major race with that equipment."
Of Firday, the state Senate wanted language that would punish some county election supervisors deemed "noncompliant" or ineffective. Lawmakers said most of the election problems happened in five counties: Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Lee.
"We all took a lot of flak all over the nation for some of the problems we had over the election last year," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who sponsored the Senate reform.
"There was enough blame to go around," Latvala said. "And there were supervisors who were not adequately prepared for the election."
At the House's insistence, the Senate backed away from the language punishing noncompliant supervisors. The Senate then passed the bill 27-13, with Democrats calling for even more early voting hours. The House passed the bill 115-1.
The early-primary rule change was almost an afterthought.
Right now, the Sunshine State's early primary violates Democratic and Republican national party rules, which penalizes the state by severely devaluing the vote of its delegates who nominate each party's presidential candidate.
Florida Republicans, for instance, would only have 12 delegates instead of 99 if the state kept its early primary in January or early February.
"We would go from being the third-largest delegation to being the smallest," said Todd Reid, state director for Rubio.
The Democratic penalties are even worse than the GOP's. If the state has an early primary, none of the Democrats' delegates would count in 2016 .
That was the first year the early primary was held, in late January, and it was done at the urging of Rubio, who was House Speaker at the time. Under Republican rules, the state was only penalized half of its delegation then and in 2012, so it made the early race worth it to give Florida more national exposure.
But the new penalties by the Republican National Committee made the early primary too prohibitive for Republicans, who control the Legislature.
On Friday afternoon, Reid suggested changing the election law to ensure the primary vote follow party rules, effectively setting the date in early March of 2016.
Reid reached out to Steve Schale, a top Florida Democratic consultant and advisor to President Obama's campaign. Schale checked with the Florida Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee, where higher-ups quickly signed off on the plan.
"It sounds like a great idea," Schale said he told Reid. "I'm tired of my party being unable to count our delegates. ... I'm worn out with being penalized by the DNC for having an early primary even though my party in Florida had nothing to with setting the early primary date."
Initially, lawmakers had no plans to fix the early primary issue out of concern that it would weigh the bill down.
The House also added the language eliminating the early primary as well as the existence of a special committee that was established to set the vote date.
Republican lawmakers say the committee isn't needed. And they want to eliminate it on the off chance that former Gov. Charlie Crist beats Gov. Rick Scott and stocks the committee with Republicans friendly to Crist, who left the GOP before he lost to Rubio in 2010 and has now become a Democrat.
The new primary-date provision, passed as an amendment Friday afternoon, specifically says Florida's primary will be held "on the first Tuesday that the rules of the major political parties provide for state delegations to be allocated without penalty."
That would put Florida in compliance with rules recently passed by the Republican National Committee, which requires states to hold a primary or caucus before the final Tuesday in February.
The RNC made the changes after the last two elections, when it struggled to stop renegade states like Florida and Michigan from moving up their primary dates to get ahead of traditional caucus and primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
When Florida jumped ahead last year, the GOP penalized the state party by allowing only 49 of its 99 delegates.
Also, Florida's Republican delegates were given far-away hotel rooms during the Republican National Convention -- even though it was held in their home-state city of Tampa.
In some cases, Florida delegates were stuck for hours on a bus as they tried to head to the RNC event.
"This way, no one from Florida should have to wait on a bus for six hours," Reid said.