Sweeping elections-law overhaul clears committee
Published: Friday, April 1, 2011 at 5:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 1, 2011 at 5:16 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — Over the objections of county elections supervisors and public-interest groups, a bill that would make numerous changes to Florida's elections law cleared a House subcommittee on Friday.
The Government Operations Subcommittee voted up the bill on Friday by a party-line tally of 9-4. Its sponsor, state Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the changes will get the state's Elections Code in “ship-shape” for the next election cycle and the redrawing of congressional and legislative district lines.
“This bill preserves and protects the political process,” Baxley told the subcommittee.
The bill started as a 14-page document and grew to 128 pages by Friday.
“It's a massive undertaking, but this will get us in good position to conduct wholesome elections so we'll know every vote counts,” he said.
But critics such as Ion Sancho, Leon County's six-term Supervisor of Elections, said the changes are meddlesome and unneeded.
“This is just partisan shenanigans raising its head again,” said Sancho, one of the three Florida county elections supervisors — out of 67 — who are not party-affiliated.
The issue of “clean elections” has been used in recent years as a political wedge. Conservatives complained that supposedly left-leaning voter-registration groups were jamming the rolls with ineligible voters. Progressives responded that conservatives wanted to discourage registration and depress turnout.
Among the more notable proposed changes, the bill:
* Requires the Secretary of State, the state's chief election officer, to provide “direction and opinions” to the county elections supervisors.
* Requires voter-registration groups, such as the League of Women Voters, to register with the state, file regular reports and turn in completed voter-registration forms within 48 hours.
* Allows elections officials to remove deceased voters from the rolls immediately, instead of waiting seven days.
* Creates a $50-a-day fine for elections supervisors, to be paid out of their own pockets, if they are late turning in voter history and other reports to the state.
* Forces voters to use provisional ballots instead of regular ballots if they want to update their name or address in voting records at the polling place.
* Allows groups to run opinion polls for people who are considering running for office without having to later count those polls as campaign contributions.
* Prohibits approaching any voter waiting in line and giving voting advice, even if the voter is more than 100 feet from the entrance of the polling place.
Ron Labasky, lawyer for the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, said his group was concerned about the Secretary of State, who is appointed by the governor, telling elected county elections supervisors how to interpret laws or run their offices — especially if that governor is on the ballot.
“It may not be the way you want to do business,” Labasky said. He also questioned the need for a personal fine for late reports.
“Accountability always hurts,” Baxley told reporters later about the fine provision. “If there's no penalty, things don't get done.”
Sancho told the committee that the bill's proposals disturbed him. He was in office and became nationally known during the contested 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
“Not allowing people to do simple address changes at the polling place is mindboggling,” Sancho said. That one change will increase “by seven-fold” the use of provisional ballots, taxing already-stressed workers because all those ballots must be verified quickly after election day, he said.
Sancho added that the possibility of voter fraud is already low since poll workers check voters against a statewide database to ensure they're not trying to vote more than once.
“We've got it right,” he said. “Don't destroy the process we have now.”
Ben Wilcox, spokesman for the League of Women Voters, which runs voter-registration drives, said the 48-hour requirement for handing in completed registration forms would be onerous for groups like his.
“In a year when you're looking to deregulate most areas of state government, why are you adding burdensome and costly regulations?” Wilcox asked the panel.
Though the subcommittee cleared the bill, some lawmakers asked Baxley for changes such as shortening early voting to one week but expanding voting hours, and clarifying the 100-foot rule.
Poll workers, who will have to enforce that rule, may favor one side over another, said state Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens.
As the 100-foot limit shifts with the length of voters' lines, “I think we're going to find not only harassment, but fights and other disruptions at the polls,” she said.
The bill, HB 1355, next will be taken up by the House State Affairs committee.