No one could have anticipated that after Florida's embarrassing November election that Tallahassee's mea culpa to voters would take the entire nine weeks of the legislative session to arrive. But the elections reform bill passed by the Legislature shortly before it adjourned Friday reverses much of the 2011 voter suppression law. The measure is far from perfect — it remains too stingy with early voting hours, for example — but it is better than the status quo and should be signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.
Reforming elections, campaign finance and ethics law were three priorities House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz named in March to restore Floridians' faith in government. Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, insisted elections reform be the first bill passed by the House. But like the campaign finance and ethics reforms the governor signed into law this week, lofty ambitions were tamed by political reality.
Ethics reform, for example, made inroads by finally giving the state ethics commission the ability to initiate investigations. But it came at a heavy cost, including extraordinary deference to lawmakers caught with errors or omissions on their financial disclosure forms. The campaign finance law improved transparency for several fundraising groups but not for political parties, all but ensuring those slush funds will see even more soft money.
Nonetheless, there was progress. The election bill, HB 7013, expands the sites available for early voting and limits, with a caveat, constitutional amendments written by the Legislature to just 75 words. Voters who forget to sign the back of their absentee ballot envelopes could fix the problem until the day before the election. And fewer voters on Election Day would be handed provisional ballots, which are far less likely to be counted. Counties that use electronic databases at the polls can allow voters who have moved within the same county to change their address that day. But lawmakers could have disenfranchised even fewer voters by returning to the law as it stood before 2011, which allowed any registered Florida voter to change his or her address on Election Day.
The bill also would improve the security of absentee ballots — a problem long ignored and now the subject of investigations in South Florida. Voters seeking to have an absentee ballot mailed to an address other than their home will have to submit a signed request. (That requirement is waived for overseas ballots and military personnel.) And it would prohibit paid political operatives from collecting more than two absentee ballots from non-family members.
Most disappointingly, Republican lawmakers hid behind concerns about cost and failed to fully restore Florida's 14 days of early voting. Under the bill, county election supervisors will only have to provide eight days of early voting but have the discretion to expand that up to 14 days, including the Sunday before an election.
In a last-minute change, the House also insisted the entire bill not take effect until Jan. 1, 2014. That means many of these new protections won't apply to this fall's municipal elections, including the mayoral and city council races in St. Petersburg.
Two steps forward, one step back. That's the dance in Tallahassee. But this elections reform is better than the current situation and should become law.