After Florida once again surfaced as anerror-ridden quagmireat the polls during the last presidential election, lawmakers crafted legislation attempting to end its starring role as late-night talk-show fodder. Now, however, a controversial proposal within the bill has critics crying foul and could force Florida legislators to take a second look.
The Senate Rules Committee approved the elections bill on a 10-5 party line vote last week. It was the final committee stop for SB 600 before going to the Senate floor.
One of the focuses of the measure is to fix long wait times for early voting. In November, some early voters waited six to eight hours before they could cast their ballots, prompting the Florida Democratic Party to file a lawsuit.Early voting is currently allowed for eight days prior to Election Day and has typically favored Democratic turnout.
Sen. Jack Latvala's bill would expand voting sites and allow election supervisors to offer early voting 14 days before the contest, including the Sunday before Election Day.
But, nestled within the proposal is a change that some experts find troubling. Latvala's bill requires that a witness be present and verify the signature of those who choose to vote by absentee ballot.
Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux expressed concerns that requiring a witness for absentee ballots may cause problems, particularly for military personnel overseas.
This is going to be, in my opinion, a means to discount more military ballots. I'm worried about that," Lux said.
Latvala, R-Clearwater, said the requirement had existed for decades until it was repealed in 2004. A Miami-Dade grand jury recently recommended witnessing signatures in order to curb voter fraud.
But, critics counter that the witnessing provision could lead to roughly 100,000 ballots being discarded, potentially influencing the outcome of future elections.
We have seen election outcomes hinge on whether supervisors count each absentee ballot or not, and the standards they apply are not consistent or uniform, political consultant Richard Johnston said.This provision would make the problem worse and dramatically impact military voters and seniors.With it, many of their votes wont be counted.
Florida voters requested more than 2.8 million absentee ballots in the 2012 presidential election.An SSN analysis revealed that some of the state's most important counties were heavily absentee. More than half of the voters in Pinellas County, for example, cast ballots by mail. They also constituted 31 percent of the total votes in Hillsborough and Brevard counties and 27 percent of votes in Miami-Dade County.
While early voting historically favors Democratic candidates, the opposite proves true for absentees. In the last gubernatorial election, Republicans accounted for just under 50 percent of the absentee ballots, while Democrats cast 35 percent and independents made up 15 percent. In the Obama-Romney election, GOP voters sent in 4 percent more than Dems.
As SB 600 heads to the Senate floor, Florida's leaders will weigh whether it will expand rights to some while punishing others.
Allison Nielsen writes special to Sunshine State News.