Responding to the long lines and long ballots that tarnished Florida's 2012 election, the Senate passed a set of voting fixes Wednesday along party lines, with Republicans voting yes and Democrats voting no.
The 26-13 vote sends the bill back to the House for final approval, as partisan divisions prevent lawmakers from broad agreement on how to repair Florida's chronic voting problems.
HB 7013 expands early voting sites in an effort to avoid more long lines and mandates eight days of early voting - not the 14 days Democrats wanted. It allows for voting on the Sunday before Election Day - known as "Souls to the Polls," which is not currently legal -but does not mandate it.
The bill sets a minimum of 64 hours of early voting, less than the current 96-hour minimum, but allows a maximum of 168 hours. Small-county election supervisors rejected a one-size-fits-all solution to early voting and said it's inefficient for them to open early voting sites all day for a handful of voters.
"The problem we have is we don't mandate Sunday voting" before Election Day, said Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. "Constitutional rights should not be subject to economic analysis."
Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said Republicans won't require early voting on the Sunday before the election because it's popular with African-Americans - who overwhelmingly vote Democratic.
The bill allows an absentee voter a second chance to sign a ballot envelope, fixing a common problem that resulted in thousands of absentee ballots to be discarded in the 2012 election.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the bill's sponsor, removed a controversial part of the bill that would have imposed restrictions on people who assist voters at the polls, including voters who don't speak English. Latvala noted that the provision could have invited lawsuits by the Department of Justice or advocacy groups, because the U.S. Voting Rights Act safeguards the right of voters to seek assistance from a person of their choice.
"It wasn't worth it," Latvala said.
Any voting law changes in Florida must be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice before they can be implemented.
Democrats complained that the bill does little to address another major problem from 2012: 11 legislatively sponsored ballot questions, some of which ran on for hundreds of words. In the future, only the first proposal listed on the ballot would be subject to a 75-word limit.
"We're not really fixing the issues that contributed to the long lines last fall," said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.
Florida New Majority, a Miami-based voter advocacy group, praised the Senate for removing the voter assistance provision. But executive director Gihan Perera said: "To avoid long lines again, the state must restore the mandatory 14 days of early voting, including the Sunday before Election Day."
The Florida Democratic Party also criticized the Senate bill. "Republicans don't want real elections reform. They don't want to own up to their mistakes," said Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. "They just want to cross this off their list and go home."
Latvala wanted a show of bipartisan unity, but he knew that was impossible. "I believe we've improved the situation," he said. "I'm sorry some of our colleagues don't think we have."
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