In a welcome turnaround from past actions, Gov. Rick Scott is now embracing both bipartisanship and election reform. Manatee County's incoming supervisor of elections, Mike Bennett, is proposing his own slate of positive changes in Florida's year-old elections law -- deservedly derided as a voter suppression measure.
The two Republicans once defended the law as necessary to thwart voter fraud, though evidence of the crime is almost non-existent. But after this year's botched election, Florida became a national joke over long lines and delayed counts. The hail storm of criticism -- and recent revelations that the GOP indeed designed the law to inhibit Democratic voters -- look like an impetus for a return to reasonable voter-friendly practices.
As a state senator in a prominent chamber position, Bennett -- who now admits he was wrong on the elections law -- could have been expected to play partisan politics on this issue. But as an elections supervisor, he holds greater responsibility and accountability to the citizenry at large.
In sharp contrast, the governor could be motivated by a partisan factor. On the very day a new poll came out putting long odds on his 2014 re-election, Scott appeared on CNN's "Starting Point" and told Soledad O'Brien this startling realization about Florida voting:
"There's three things. One, the length of the ballot. Two, we've got to allow our supervisors more flexibility on the size of our polling locations. And three, the number of days we have. We've gotta go back and look at the number of days of early voting we have."
Then he added, "But we do need change. We've got to have a bipartisan group come together, Republicans and Democrats, and say, 'We've got to improve this. We've got to restore the confidence of all Americans in the election process in Florida.'"
That's a far cry from last year when he signed the Republican-dominated Legislature's so-called elections reform measure. The law cut the number of early voting days from 14 to eight while extending daily hours from eight to 12. The fewer days led to lengthy waits at some polling places. A ballot clogged with proposed constitutional amendments slowed the process, too. Most troubling is the admission that the election law was indeed designed to suppress Democratic voters in the wake of the huge 2008 turnout and Florida victory for Barack Obama.
In an exclusive Palm Beach Post report last month, former Republican leaders and current GOP consultants admitted that Florida Republican Party staff and consultants wrote the measure to discourage Democratic voters. The argument in support of the measure -- that it was designed to save money and fight fraud -- was mere subterfuge, GOP leaders acknowledged.
Former Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning told the Post: "But reducing early voting days does not attack voter fraud and given the longer days, it certainly does not save money."
The state is reviewing the law, with Secretary of State Ken Detzner touring key counties and consulting with elections supervisors. The consensus is revoking its indefensible provisions.
Scott appears to be trying to make amends for this now discredited law, likely with a keen eye toward his approval ratings. Quinnipiac University came out with fresh numbers showing Florida voters say the governor doesn't merit a second term by a 52-32 percent margin. Far worse, though, is 53 percent of Scott's fellow Republicans want a primary challenger.
As an elections supervisor with legislative experience, Bennett is in a position to influence election reform, and he is already pursuing that through his House and Senate contacts. He's advancing two vital provisions -- restoration of the number of early voting days to 14 and greater flexibility in the selection of early polling sites.
As we've opined in the past, the state should expand the list of permissible places for polling sites beyond city halls, public libraries and elections offices to make voting more convenient. In November's election, Manatee County only offered the elections office as an early polling place and long lines resulted.
Bennett also proposes a ground-breaking and refreshing idea: a combination voter registration and photo ID card, with the state covering the expense. That would be a boon to poor Floridians without a drivers license or other state identification card.
Florida's elections should be easy and convenient for voters, not a daunting task that prompts discouraged citizens to abandon their right to cast a ballot. The state appears on track to eliminate its roadblocks.