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House leaders give ground on Florida election law overhaul

TALLAHASSEE — Following harsh criticism from voting rights groups and a threatened veto by Gov. Charlie Crist, House leaders have retreated from a sweeping overhaul of Florida's election laws.

The full House is expected to debate a much milder version today, a week after a House council approved the earlier version while shutting down legislative debate and public comment.

The new version omits a provision to eliminate as acceptable two forms of ID used mainly by older voters; requirements that paid petition circulators must register with the state; a requirement that voters who change their address close to an election must cast provisional ballots; and rules that would have made it a crime for anyone to interact with voters within 100 feet of a polling place.

"Almost all of the provisions that had any controversy are going to be removed from the bill on the floor of the House," said House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach. "I think it will take a lot of the tension out of the air."

In rapid-fire fashion in recent days, the New York Times published a harshly critical editorial, a coalition of voter advocacy groups criticized the Legislature's lack of deliberation and the bill's contents, and election supervisors, including Deborah Clark of Pinellas County, said the bill would have erected new barriers to voting.

"This is possibly a momentary victory for grass-roots groups," said Brad Ashwell of the Florida Public Interest Research Group. "We're happy that they're backing down, but we're not going to be happy until the bill is dead."

Secretary of State Kurt Browning, the state's top elections official, emphasized that most of what was in the original election-law overhaul bill was not sought by his office and that the few changes offered by his office are not considered "must-pass" this year, which is not an election year.

"The system we currently have works and works well, and I think voters are better served by the current law," Browning said.

Democrats have filed 47 amendments to the new bill, HB 7149, sponsored by Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami.

The new bill tightens the requirements for removing deceased voters from the voter rolls; requires petition-gatherers to turn in signed petitions within 45 days of collecting them; and restores legislator-controlled leadership funds, which were banned in the 1990s.

The funds would allow the public to know which legislators are receiving contributions from which interests, but critics say the funds' revival would increase the reliance on large, unrestricted campaign contributions from special interests.

Despite the House leadership's decision to gut its original bill, debate is expected to be testy. Many Democrats remain outraged by last week's spectacle in which a committee's Republican majority shut down debate and testimony to quickly force a vote that was needed to get the bill in position for floor debate.

"There's only a few days left in session. Tensions are high," Hasner said. "So I think everyone just needs to stay calm right now and just see that there's a reasonable final solution to this issue. … People may not have had the opportunity to stand and testify at a committee, but I assure you, people have spoken to legislators. We've heard from both sides. … So to suggest that there's been no public input is a little misleading."

A broader, more controversial overhaul of the election laws in the Senate, SB 956, is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami. Its future remains unclear.

Times/Herald staff writer Amy Hollyfield contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

House leaders give ground on Florida election law overhaul 04/23/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 23, 2009 11:28pm]

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