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Critics pounce on ballot reform as bill heads for governor's desk

Responding to rampant voter fraud in Miami's recent mayoral election, the Florida Legislature has approved sweeping changes that would tighten the use of absentee ballots and require voters to better identify themselves.

But all of the talk about good intentions and good government has not silenced concerns about the legislation, which is headed to Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Before the House approved the bill Tuesday, even some Dade legislators complained that allowing state political parties to appoint absentee ballot coordinators invites more abuses. And Bill Jones, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Women Voters, said that nonpartisan group will ask Chiles to veto the bill because the group believes the bill discriminates against independent candidates and candidates in nonpartisan elections.

Ron Labasky, a lobbyist for the county election supervisors, say the supervisors also do not like the creation of the ballot coordinators. But he said the supervisors have not decided whether to ask Chiles to veto the legislation.

In an attempt avoid massive voter fraud, the legislation limits the number of absentee ballots any registered voter could witness to five ballots per election. But it allows the Democrat and Republican state parties to each designate up to 40 absentee ballot coordinators in each general election who could witness an unlimited number of absentee ballots.

"We are doing nothing to the biggest vote brokers in the state," said Rep. Shirley Brown, D-Sarasota.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, who headed the conference committee that worked out the compromise legislation, said he did not support the creation of the ballot coordinators. But he said the bill still includes many significant provisions that will help prevent voter fraud.

"It is tremendously better than current law," Latvala said.

Jones said the legislation creates an unlevel playing field for independent candidates, who would not have the benefit of the ballot coordinators. But supporters of the bill said independent candidates could use notaries for the same purpose.

Another provision that triggered opposition in the House would require voters to list if and where they have been granted a homestead exemption. County election supervisors would then forward the information to property appraisers, who would examine those residents who register to vote at a different address than their homestead. That examination could lead to the revocation of the homestead exemption.

Floridians who register to vote also would be asked to provide their driver's license or personal identification, and they would be required to release the last four digits of their Social Security number. To vote, they would be required to show a photo identification card.

The bill also stiffens penalties for selling votes and paying people to register to vote from misdemeanors to third degree felonies.

Before the House voted 73-42 for the bill, House Majority Leader Jim King of Jacksonville warned his colleagues that their opponents could attack them if they voted against election reform.

"Could it happen?" asked King. "You bet your sweet bippy."

_ Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

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