It was designed to be a symbolic gesture of significant proportions. On the first day of the 2013 session Tuesday, the Florida House overwhelmingly approved a mea culpa bill aimed at correcting the legislative-created dysfunction of the 2012 election. Despite its good intentions, the House legislation falls short of the cure-all Republican leaders claim — particularly when it comes to early voting. Now it falls to the Senate to improve this bill and give Floridians fairer, smoother elections.
Florida's election issues in November can be tied directly to the 2011 Legislature. Dramatically shortened early voting opportunities combined with a ballot the Legislature crammed full of lengthy constitutional amendments led to extraordinary lines at the polls on Election Day. In parts of Miami-Dade County, some ballots weren't cast until after midnight. Then it took days for county elections officials to process the record number of absentee ballots that were cast.
Much of HB 7013 makes commonsense changes, such as requiring county election supervisors to process any absentee ballots received prior to Election Day beforehand and allowing absentee voters to cast a new ballot if they fail to sign the outside envelope of the first one. But instead of restoring the state's early voting to a required 14 days, Republican House leaders embraced a half-measure. They increased the minimum number of hours that early voting polls must be open from 48 over eight days to 64 hours over eight days. But they left to each county's discretion whether to offer more early voting, up to 14 days totaling no more than 168 hours. And it's also up to each county whether early voting is available on the Sunday before a Tuesday election, a high turnout day.
The scheme is a recipe for inconsistent access to the polls and flies in the face of the state's arguments as it defended the 2011 law that reduced early voting and drew objections from the U.S. Justice Department as it applied to five counties — including Hills-borough — with a history of discrimination.
Some county elections supervisors have pushed for flexibility, arguing one-size-fits-all does not make sense for 67 diverse counties. But the tradeoff is far too great. Under the House bill, neighboring counties could embrace radically different plans for early voting. That has real implications for multicounty races for the Legislature and Congress. Already in Tampa Bay, Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark has eschewed early voting in favor of mail-in ballots and opens the minimum three early voting sites each election, while neighboring counties open many more locations. Under this House bill, that disparity of access could grow, with neighboring counties offering substantially more early voting hours and giving their citizens a disproportionate chance to influence the outcome of multi-county races.
House Republicans said all the right things this week about learning from the 2012 election. But actions speak louder than words. HB 7013 is step in the right direction, but it now falls to the Senate to approve a sure solution. Florida should have one common standard to ensure the greatest opportunity to vote, and early voting should be restored to 14 days statewide — including the Sunday before the election.