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Elections bill lingers on Legislature's last day

TALLAHASSEE — Embarrassed by an elections meltdown, lawmakers headed to the Capitol this year with a pledge to undo a law that helped lead to long lines, angry voters and jeers about "Flori-duh."

But the elections cleanup bill that the House passed on the very first day of the legislative session has yet to pass the Legislature as the last day dawns.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly support the plan to reverse parts of a 2011 election law by expanding the number of sites and days in which early voting is offered. The bill also gives people a chance to correct an absentee ballot they forgot to sign and would make it easier to prosecute people caught possessing multiple absentee ballots.

But there's a major hangup between the House and Senate: a plan to punish elections supervisors deemed ineffective and "noncompliant" with the state's election code.

"We think it's a little bit punitive," House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said Thursday, indicating the proposal would be stripped from the bill.

It all revolves around the county that was a poster child of electoral dysfunction: Miami-Dade.

The Senate wants the punishment language, partly to target supervisors like Miami-Dade's Penelope Townsley, who defended the way her office handled the last election, in which some voters had to wait more than eight hours to cast ballots.

A number of Miami-Dade voters cast their ballots after President Barack Obama was declared the winner in the 2012 election.

The county and elections advocates blame the Legislature for long lines and election troubles. The 2011 law cut back on early voting and made it easier for the Legislature to print the full text of multiple proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot.

Coupled with inadequately equipped precincts, early voting and Election Day lines stretched for hours in counties such as Miami-Dade and Orange.

While people blamed the 2011 state law, Miami Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla said local elections supervisors should be held accountable as well.

Diaz de la Portilla sponsored the plan last month to withhold some pay for election supervisors who don't properly manage elections. The secretary of state can recommend that the governor remove elections supervisors who are deemed noncompliant for more than three years in a row.

Weatherford indicated the House would try to compromise with the Senate by making the new noncompliance language apply only to unelected supervisors. There's only one in the state: Miami-Dade's.

Since all other supervisors are elected, lawmakers say, the elections chiefs can be called to account by voters for mismanaging elections or failing to competently run an election.

If the House strips the language from the bill, it would have to go back to the Senate on the last day of the session.

Senate sponsor Clearwater Republican Sen. Jack Latvala, said the Senate wants to hold firm. But Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he doesn't like the currently written language about "noncompliant" supervisors.

The law the Legislature is overhauling was partly inspired by Republican Party of Florida operatives and targeted early voting, a type of in-person ballot casting preferred by Democrats.

The new Republican-crafted bill expands the available sites for early voting and mandates eight days of early voting for at least eight hours each day. Elections officials have the option to extend early voting to 14 days for up to 12 hours a day.

Democrats have demanded that the state mandate all 14 days of early voting but Republicans refused, citing testimony of urban and rural county elections supervisors who prefer more flexibility.

Democrats remain critical of Republicans for not preventing future Legislatures from loading ballots with a multitude of wordy questions. Miami Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, noted the struggles of 102-year-old Desiline Victor, who waited so long to vote that Obama featured her in part of his State of the Union address.

Late-night comics made "Flori-duh" an ongoing punchline ever since.

The Legislature's new election bill, for the first time, allows people who cast an absentee ballot but forget to sign their ballot envelope a second chance to add the signature to ensure that their votes count. Under current law, absentee voters who don't sign the envelope are not told until after the election is over that their ballots were discarded.

To help stop fraud, the bill makes it tougher to anonymously request an absentee ballot and send it to an address that's different from the one associated with a voter. Also, those who request absentee ballots on behalf of a family member need to submit a written affidavit.

Gaetz expected the bill would pass. Weatherford was optimistic but cautious.

"On the very first day of session, we passed out a bipartisan elections bill," Weatherford said. "Our hope is that on the last day of session, we are able to pass out a bipartisan elections bill."

Miami Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

Elections bill lingers on Legislature's last day 05/02/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 3, 2013 12:16am]
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