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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Senate reworks elections bill; supervisors livid



Senate Republicans on Tuesday reworked an elections bill that addresses voting problems that made Florida a target of national ridicule in 2012. But they rejected changes Democrats sought and added a provision, directed at Miami-Dade's top elections official, that angered election supervisors.

A final vote was delayed. The bill expands early voting sites in hopes of avoiding a repeat of last year's lines and mandates eight early voting days for at least eight hours a day. Counties could voluntarily extend early voting to 14 days, including the Sunday before the election. The bill prohibits future legislatures from publishing the full texts of proposed constitutional amendments. Full-texting was a major factor in November's long lines.

The bill also addresses the widespread problem of sloppy absentee ballots by giving absentee voters the ability to fix a problem with their ballots up to 5 p.m. on the Sunday before an election. Bowing to growing opposition, senators also dropped a provision that would have required absentee voters to have their ballots witnessed by an adult.

The bill prohibits paid absentee ballot solicitors from receiving more than two ballots for people other than family members, and it prohibits people from assisting more than 10 voters at the polls -- which a Miami-Dade civil rights group, Florida New Majority, says would result in the disenfranchisement of some voters.

But a last-minute amendment that was not debated in a committee became highly controversial. The amendment gives the Secretary of State power to place a county supervisor of election on "noncompliant status," including the loss of $2,000 in salary, for up to three years for incompetence. Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, who has been critical of Miami-Dade Supervisor Penelope Townsley's handling of the 2012 vote, sponsored the provision. Townsley is the only supervisor among 67 who's appointed, not elected.

"It's more symbolic than anything else," Diaz de la Portilla said. "It's not about removal from office. Only the governor can do that." He said the provision is aimed at the five election supervisors who "underperformed" last fall, in the words of Secretary of State Ken Detzner, and was not specifically aimed at Townsley.

Supervisors weren't buying that. They watched in anger as the amendment passed on a 22-18 vote. "Heavy-handed and a ham-fisted attempt to get after his own supervisor of elections," said Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards. "A typical inside Tallahassee backroom deal."

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, manager of the bill, said he was persuaded to support the provision, noting that things should not get so bad that an election supervisor has to be suspended from office. Said Latvala: "This is a token kind of thing that could be used by the Secretary of State to get the attention of supervisors who are not doing the job they were elected to do."

Senate Democrats tried in vain to make early voting mandatory on the Sunday before the election; to make "any suitable location" available for early voting; and to limit future ballot questions to no more than 150 words.  The bill (HB 7013) now returns to the full House for a vote.

[Last modified: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 1:50pm]


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