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Major Florida House elections bill emerges before committee vote

TALLAHASSEE — A sweeping rewrite of election laws, crafted in part by House Speaker Dean Cannon's office, surfaced Friday and drew strong opposition from election supervisors, unions, grass roots advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers.

The House Government Operations Committee passed the bill on a 9-4 party-line vote, the morning after the weighty, 128-page bill first appeared.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, called the bill a "substantive cleanup" of the election code heading into 2012, when all legislative and congressional district lines must be redrawn.

"It is very, very important that we get this right," said Baxley, who confirmed that Cannon's office had a hand in crafting the bill, HB 1355. "Anything this important, I would work closely with the speaker's office."

Democrats asked why such a sweeping piece of legislation was being rushed.

"This is an extreme makeover," said Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach, "and getting it just last night, I haven't been able to digest all that's in it."

The bill's most controversial provision would wipe out a 40-year tradition in Florida that allows voters who have recently moved to update their voting address at the polls when they vote. The bill would require those voters to cast provisional ballots instead.

Baxley defended the change as needed to prevent fraud, such as the same voter voting twice.

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho called it "disturbing" and "appalling" to threaten the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of voters solely because they moved.

"We've got it right. We don't need to destroy the process," Sancho said. "I'm very disturbed by this bill as to its tone. … The citizens of Florida deserve much better than this."

The bill also would:

• Impose new restrictions on third-party groups that do voter registration efforts, including additional filing requirements and reducing from 10 days to two the deadlines for filing voter applications with the state.

• Allow potential candidates to spend up to $10,000 to test the waters for a possible candidacy. They wouldn't have to reveal the source of the money unless they actually ran for office.

• Slap $50-a-day fines on election supervisors who are late filing routine reports with the state, and allow the state to impose binding directives on the supervisors, who are elected constitutional officers like sheriffs.

To date, a similar bill has not surfaced in the Senate.

Democrats failed in an effort to add a provision to expand the hours and locations of early voting, an idea two Miami Republicans — Reps. Ana Rivas Logan and Michael Bileca — said deserves consideration because of extremely long lines at early voting sites in the last presidential election in 2008.

The Florida Public Interest Research Group, League of Women Voters and Florida AFL-CIO opposed the bill.

Ron Labasky, counsel to the state association of election supervisors, objected to new demands on them, such as submitting extensive poll data after the primary while preparations for the general election are under way.

Labasky said fines also were a concern, but Baxley was unapologetic.

"Accountability always hurts," he said. "No insult to them."

Members of the Tampa Bay delegation on the committee, Reps. Dana Young, R-Tampa, and Larry Ahern, R-St. Petersburg, voted for the bill.

Major Florida House elections bill emerges before committee vote 04/01/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 1, 2011 10:28pm]
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