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Florida elections chief defends voting laws as he begins listening tour

TAMPA — Hillsborough County election officials articulated some of the same points as voter rights advocates when asked Monday how to solve long lines and improve the democratic process at Florida's polls.

Return early voting to 14 days, from eight during this year's general election, they advised. Don't tamp down voter registration by placing additional restrictions on third-party groups. And don't limit early voting sites to libraries and government buildings.

The response from Department of State interim general counsel Gary Holland, on at least that last point: "Talk to the Legislature."

"I was a little taken aback by that," said incoming Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer. "I was like, I thought that's why you were here."

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner began his tour of elections offices in Hillsborough, a place he said largely got it right during the recent elections, to learn benchmarks that could be applied elsewhere. From here, he and his top staff visit five other Florida counties — Broward, Lee, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and St. Lucie — that grappled with long lines and other challenges that again exposed the state to national ridicule.

Detzner said his goal is to take what he hears to the Legislature in the form of recommendations to make things run more smoothly next Election Day. But asked afterward his thoughts on a two-week early voting period or placing additional hurdles on third-party registration groups, Detzner articulated previous arguments.

On restoring early voting times: "When you look at the turnout, which was larger than it was in 2008, that obviously speaks to the point that people were satisfied with the current law. People responded, reacted and turned out in greater numbers."

On the law governing conduct of third-party registration groups, which was later eased by a federal judge: It allows elections officials to identify those who commit fraud, he said.

And on the state's troubled scrubbing of ineligible voters from registration rolls: He said those identified are given "due process to give them notice and ample time to have themselves be removed or be prosecuted."

The Secretary of State's Office scheduled the tour stop a little more than a week ago. Records show a state department official sent Hillsborough elections officials nearly 90 questions shortly after the close of business Friday in anticipation Monday's session.

Detzner said his greatest takeaway from the two-hour meeting was the need to ensure each county is making full and proper use of available technology and that there should be further discussion about the length of ballots. Voters this past election were greeted in Hillsborough with a three-page, two-sided ballot, largely due to 11 constitutional amendments that legislators had proposed.

Detzner said technology issues may need to be handled at the local level, since county commissioners generally approve elections office budgets. On balance, things were not so bad, he said.

"We had a really good election," Detzner said. "Sixty-two of 67 counties performed very well. But it doesn't take but one county to not quite meet the standards for Florida to get a reputation."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

Florida elections chief defends voting laws as he begins listening tour 12/10/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 11, 2012 12:17am]
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