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Early voting expansion hits partisan snag in Tallahassee

TALLAHASSEE

The Legislature is about to have its annual debate over the popularity and convenience of early voting.

Then again, maybe not.

Few issues at the Capitol are more overtly partisan than the perennial tinkering with the election laws, especially with a presidential election on the horizon.

The people who run elections in Florida — the elected election supervisors — have a simple request. They want to expand the kinds of places they can use for early voting.

Current law restricts locations to elections offices, city halls and libraries. That's too narrow, elections people say, and they don't want elderly voters sweltering under a broiling sun waiting to cast ballots for president next year.

"We support giving more flexibility to the types of locations we can use," said David Stafford, the elections supervisor in Pensacola's Escambia County and legislative affairs director for his colleagues.

Bills have been introduced in both houses to do just that. The bills are sponsored by Democrats, and they were sent to committees chaired by Republicans. As the nine-week session enters Week 4, there is no sign that the early voting bills will be heard.

Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, sponsor of the Senate version, SB 848, also wants to expand weekend early voting from the current eight-hour limit to at least 12 hours.

Rich's bill would allow early voting at a "place of worship, civic center, convention center, community center, county government center, conference center, community college or university."

"We need to make voting as accessible as possible," Rich said. "Only allowing eight hours in the aggregate on the weekend is a problem for working people."

Rich said the magic words: "working people." Early voting is perceived as helping Democrats, and boosting African-American turnout. The early voting turnouts in 2004, 2006 and 2008 bear that out.

But 2010 was a banner year for Republicans — a very different story. A higher percentage of early voters were Republicans. Yet the perception lingers that Democrats derive a bigger benefit.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, said he's concerned about increasing the costs of early voting but he's "looking at" Rich's bill.

Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, has control of the House version, and said he hasn't decided whether to hear it. He did say his local election supervisor, Mark Anderson, "loves early voting."

Rep. Evan Jenne filed the House version, and said his motivation has nothing to do with partisanship.

"I can honestly say that Barack Obama never came into my thought process about this bill," said Jenne, a Dania Beach Democrat. "This bill was simply to get more people voting."

Neither party wants to do anything that could give the other side an advantage at the polls in 2012. So the odds are against any expansion of early voting — despite the wishes of election supervisors.

Dave Bitner, chairman of the state Republican Party, said he's a fan of early voting, but worries about people trying to vote twice — once early and once on election day.

"I want as many legal people to come to the polls as we possibly can," Bitner said.

But as to expanding early voting sites: "I don't think the Republican Party has taken a position."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Early voting expansion hits partisan snag in Tallahassee 03/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 25, 2011 8:13pm]

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