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Legislature OKs election reform bill

TAMPA - An elections reform bill — one intended to reform previous reforms — was headed for a signature by Gov. Rick Scott on Friday after final passage in the state Legislature. House Democrats backed the bill after removal of at least one provision opposed by voting rights advocates, a restriction on helpers in polling places who assist the disabled and those who speak languages other than English in filling out ballots. Some Pinellas County Democratic House members, meanwhile, threw their support behind the bill after negotiating with Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark on early voting there. The measure then passed the House 118-1. One key provision added late would move Florida’s presidential primary from the last Tuesday in January to the first Tuesday that doesn’t violate national Democratic and Republican party rules. Florida, by voting early in each of the past two elections, has violated party rules that dictate when states can hold presidential primaries, leading to punishments such as a reduced number of delegates at nominating conventions.
Not all voting rights advocates are pleased with the bill, mainly because it allows but doesn’t require a return to 14 days of early voting, leaving it to the discretion of county elections supervisors. The current requirement is eight days. In a party-line Senate vote, 27 Republicans voted for the bill and 13 Democrats against. Until 2011, Florida required 14 days of early voting, including the Sunday before Election Day — “souls to the polls Sunday” in many black churches. A contentious 2011 elections law known as House Bill 1355 cut that to eight days and imposed other restrictions. Democrats and others blamed HB 1355 for the messy 2012 election with its hourslong lines at some urban polling places. Gov. Rick Scott, who signed HB 1355 into law, declared his support before the legislative session for reversing some of its restrictions on early voting. He issued a statement late Friday praising passage of the new bill and promising to sign it. The new bill also limits to 75 words the length of summaries of constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by the Legislature. That limit already applies to citizen-initiated amendments. In 2012, the GOP-dominated Legislature put 11 constitutional amendments on the ballot — some with lengthy, dense summaries also blamed for long voting lines. Democrats and voting rights advocacy groups nationwide said HB 1355’s early voting restrictions and other changes, plus the amendments, constituted an attempt by Republicans to suppress the votes of minorities and other Democrats in the 2012 election. Republicans denied that. State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, authored an amendment last week removing the restrictions on poll helpers. In a conference call last week, volunteer poll helpers from South Florida said they worked long hours during the 2012 election helping scores of voters a day, mostly minorities with limited English and some with limited literacy even in their own languages. The restrictions Latvala helped remove would have limited helpers to assisting no more than 10 voters and only those who knew the helper before Election Day. “That would have resulted in thousands of disenfranchised voters, overburdened elections staff and longer lines for everybody,” said Carline Gele, a volunteer poll helper with the politically active Service Employees International Union. Advocates of the restrictions had argued that some paid poll helpers try to influence voters rather than just helping them. After Latvala’s action, state Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, voted for the bill because “it’s not where we wanted to be, but it is a very big first step from HB 1355. I’m happy that supervisors have the ability to extend to 14 days of early voting, and I know our supervisor will take full advantage of that.” Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer was voted into office in November. Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, said he backed the bill after discussions with Clark. In 2012, under Clark’s supervision, Pinellas had three early voting sites. Democrats say more are needed, citing long travel times. Dudley said she promised to continue to allow early voting on Sundays, including the one before Election Day, and “said she was open to further discussion about finding other locations to allow early voting sites that are more convenient.” In a written statement, Clark confirmed Pinellas will continue early voting on Sundays. State Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, who voted against the bill, acknowledged that it includes “some decent provisions.” He said Senate Democrats wanted a requirement of 14 early voting days and he wanted nothing short of outright repeal of HB 1355. “That bill was awful,” Ring said.

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Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.

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