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National Politics

Florida Republicans rethinking election law

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 08:00 AM
TAMPA -

In the wake of Florida's Nov. 6 election fiasco, Republican state legislators and Gov. Rick Scott acknowledge the massive election reform law they passed amid partisan controversy two years ago needs to be revised.

Scott, who signed the new rules into law and initially defended the conduct of the Nov. 6 voting, has since said Floridians "are frustrated" and the state needs "bipartisan legislation … to restore confidence in our elections."

Republican legislative leaders who solidly backed the election reform bill two years ago now say it needs revisiting.

"The only 10 laws that were divinely inspired and could never need any amendment came down from the mountain with Moses," said state Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican.

Still open to question is what parts of the law the GOP legislators are willing to change, and by how much.

Though acknowledging change is needed, they also suggest some of the blame for Election Day problems falls on local elections supervisors where the worst problems occurred — most of them Democrats — by pointing out that most counties had few problems.

They also continue to deny that the law, known as House Bill 1355, was aimed at suppressing voting by minorities, youths and women, as Democrats contend, despite new evidence from court testimony showing the bill was produced at the request of state Republican Party political operatives.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, said of the voter suppression charge.

"I certainly had no intention, and I don't think any of my colleagues had any intention, of suppressing any vote. We didn't suppress the vote — the turnout was quite large."

Backers said HB 1355 was aimed at preventing fraud, but opponents said no evidence was produced of significant amounts of the kind of fraud it targeted — voter impersonation — and it included no measures against the kind known to occur widely, absentee ballot fraud.

Scott, Gaetz and Weather-ford have all set in motion potential changes in the law for the legislative session starting in March.

Weatherford has established a new House Subcommittee on Ethics and Elections to consider election laws and another of his priorities — campaign finance reform.

Gaetz has named Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, as head of the corresponding Senate committee, a choice praised by some opponents of HB 1355.

"He gets it," said Sen. Mike Fasano, of New Port Richey, one of only two Republicans in the Legislature who voted against the measure in 2011.

Scott has asked Secretary of State Ken Detzner to investigate the election problems and recommend solutions.

The main problems: voting lines up to seven hours long and a slow count that left the Florida outcome undecided until four days after the election. On blue-and-red network television maps, Florida remained stubbornly beige, fueling jokes on late-night TV and recalling the 2000 recount debacle.

Spokesman Chris Cate of the secretary of state's office said the suggestion that Florida came in last was "a misconception. … Florida was the last state to be called by the media because the results were so close. Several states were counting ballots after Florida."

Immediately after the election, after being criticized for refusing to extend early voting in response to the long lines, Scott told reporters, "I'm very comfortable that the right thing happened; ... 4.4 million people came out and voted either absentee or early. ... So we did the right thing."

Detzner responded to criticism in a CNN interview by pointing to Florida's "decentralized system of election" in which "independent supervisors are elected."

Scott sounded more conciliatory in a Dec. 19 interview, saying the Legislature should act on issues of ballot length and the number of days and sites for early voting.

Other Republicans also said they at least are willing to consider changes restoring early voting days, cut from 14 to eight in HB 1355, and eliminating the language that limits early voting sites to public libraries and county offices only.

Latvala said he wants to make it easier to vote at polling places instead of by absentee, including expediting early voting.

But he noted that some counties could have used more early voting sites than they did and that some lacked adequate scanners at the sites. "The Legislature can't be blamed for that."

Despite the limit on sites, Florida had more in 2012 than in 2008, 289 instead of 269, including equal or greater numbers in the large, southeastern counties with delayed counts and the longest lines — Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward. Hillsborough had 15 sites, compared with 13 in 2008.

Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Craig Latimer said he still believes supervisors need more flexibility in choosing sites because many, such as small branch libraries with little parking and no extra rooms, aren't suitable for voting.

Because of the new limits on early voting, the Obama campaign urged supporters to get mail-in ballots from election offices instead of going to early voting sites. Counting those ballots added to the post-Election Day task for elections workers.

Another major problem was the length of the ballot.

HB 1355 exacerbated that by allowing the Legislature to put proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot with no limit on the length of the amendment summary.

Amendments proposed by citizen petitions must have a summary of no more than 75 words.

In Miami-Dade, the 11 amendments put on the ballot by the Legislature, plus several local government initiatives, pushed the ballot to 12 pages, a major reason for the county's delay in reporting results until two days after the election.

"I think we all agree the length of the ballot had something to do with it; that's obviously the Legislature's problem," Latvala said. "If a citizen's initiative has to be explained in 75 words, I don't see why the Legislature shouldn't be held to the same standard."

Weatherford declined to blame either HB 1355 or local supervisors for the election problems. "We don't know for sure," he said. "What we have to do now is gather the facts."

But, he added, "there appear to be habitual problems in certain counties when it comes to counting the votes," a clear reference to Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, centers of problems in both 2000 and this year.

Weatherford chose Rep. Jim Boyd, a Bradenton Republican, as chairman of his new committee to consider the issue.

Boyd called HB 1355 "overall … a very good election reform" but said he's open to changes.

Asked whether he considered the law or local supervisors more to blame for the Nov. 6 mess, Boyd said, "I don't want to cast any aspersions on local supervisors before I have the facts. I know … that 62 out of 67 counties had pretty routine elections. Five did not."

That argument is "bogus" and an attempt to shift blame for the problems to local supervisors, said Rep. Janet Cruz, of Tampa, ranking Democrat on Boyd's committee.

"Their definition of 'success' was if they had a four-hour wait or less," she said. "A four-hour wait is not acceptable. That's taking half a day off work, missing picking up kids at school."

Fasano and Sen. Paula Dockery, of Lakeland, were the only Republicans who joined Democrats voting against HB 1355 in 2011. Democrats contended from the outset that it was an attempt to cut turnout of Democratic voters in the 2012 election by:

The bill also imposed new restrictions on constitutional amendment petition drives by citizens, saying the petition drives must be completed in two years or signatures become invalid.

"All I kept hearing was we have to pass this law because of the fraud, the fraud, the fraud," Fasano said. "And I would ask, 'Give me an example of this fraud,' and they never could. They would cite someone registering as Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, but those people never voted."

Latvala said the election law review should include absentee voting. Controls instituted in the 1990s have since been repealed, he said.

"Having those ballots hanging around for a month in people's homes, God knows who's voting them.


wmarch@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7761

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