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National Politics

Bill cutting early voting hours heads to governor

Jerome R. Stockfisch, LINDSAY PETERSON Staff
The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 01:13 PM

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TALLAHASSEE -

The Legislature has passed and sent to Gov. Rick Scott an election overhaul that makes it harder for citizens to register fellow voters and get constitutional amendments on the ballot, while tweaking early voting hours.

Democrats and voter-rights activists have assailed the bill, and their attacks continued on the chamber floors Thursday with Sen. Arthenia Joyner from Tampa calling it an "outrageous attack on that precious right." But the Republican sponsor and his allies said the bill fights fraud and improves the integrity of the elections process.

The bill would:

•Cut from 4 years to 2 years the amount of time to gather signatures for citizen petitions to place constitutional amendments on the ballot.

•Require those who report a change of address at the polls to cast a provisional ballot rather than a true ballot, unless the address change is within the same county. About half of all provisional ballots are not counted.

•Require third-party voter registration organizations to submit the forms they collect within two days instead of the current 10.

Republican-sponsored bills in both chambers originally intended to cut early voting from the current 14 days to six days. But lawmakers on Thursday changed that to eight days and allowed county elections supervisors to keep polls open for anywhere from six to 12 hours a day.

Keeping polls open 12 hours a day for eight days would result in the same amount of voting hours as the existing schedule.

Sens. Nan Rich and Gwen Margolis, both Democrats from the Miami area, suggested that Republicans were targeting young voters and those who registered Democrats en masse prior to the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

"There's something wrong when you think that what happened four years ago is a problem," Margolis said. "It is not."

Rich called the bill an attempt to suppress voter turnout. "This bill takes us backwards," she told senators on the floor. "I hope you will think about joining me in rejecting this attempt to make it harder for people to vote and participate in their government.

In the House, the outnumbered Democrats proposed a slate of amendments in an attempt to ease some of the most restrictive aspects of the bill.

Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, proposed allowing college students to change their addresses at the polls without having to cast provisional ballots.

The bill makes this allowance for members of the military, noted Rep. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. "Why would we do this for one group of people who have to be away from home and not for another?"

Rep. Richard Steinberg, a D-Miami Beach, highlighted problems in counting provisional ballots and suggested that bill sponsors sought to suppress the college vote.

Then Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, proposed requiring election supervisors to count all provisional ballots before certifying results.

"We're possibly pushing thousands of people to cast provisional ballots," he said. "I hope nobody in this room would want to release vote totals…before we've counted every person's vote."

Rep. Alan Williams, a Tallahassee Democrat, proposed giving elections supervisors the option of setting up early voting sites on university campuses.

The proposed amendments all failed on party-line votes.

"These are things that happen in third-world countries," said Miami Beach Democrat Luis Garcia, referring to the new limits in the bill. "I'm embarrassed."

But Senate Republican Mike Bennett, from Bradenton, suggested it might be too easy to cast a ballot.

"We do make it convenient for people to vote," he said. "But I have to tell you, I don't have a problem making it harder. I want people in Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who walks 200 miles across the desert. This should not be easy. This should be something you should do with a passion."

The bills passed largely along party lines, 25-13 in the Senate and 77-38 in the House.

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