Florida lawmakers are poised to pass voting law changes after being mocked for long lines and delayed results during the 2012 presidential election.
But in the waning days of the legislative session, Senate Democrats are criticizing the plan as not going far enough to address problems at the polls last year.
"This bill mandates only two things that will address concerns from the last election," said Sen. Chris Smith, the Senate Democratic leader from Fort Lauderdale. "It allows persons to correct an absentee ballot if they did not sign it and requires an extra two hours a day for early voting. Everything else in this bill is discretionary."
Smith's statement leaves people with the impression that the bill (HB 7013) changes little for the better. We decided to check it out.
First, some quick history. In 2011, the GOP-dominated Legislature reduced the amount of days for early voting from 14 to eight. Lawmakers gave elections supervisors a choice of offering between six and 12 hours of early voting each day. So local elections supervisors could offer between 48 hours and 96 hours of early voting over eight days.
This year's bill would add early voting hours, allowing between 64 hours (eight days, eight hours each) and 168 hours (14 days, 12 hours each) at the discretion of elections supervisors. But supervisors would be required to offer a minimum of eight hours a day, two more a day than current law.
On absentee ballot signatures, the bill gives voters a second chance if they forget to sign their absentee ballot.
But that doesn't tell the whole story, said Brian Corley, Pasco County's elections supervisor and leader of the association's legislative affairs this year.
Corley said the law allows flexibility for large counties, which may need more early voting hours than smaller counties.
"Do you think (Palm Beach supervisor Susan) Bucher or (supervisor Brenda) Snipes in Broward for a major presidential or gubernatorial election is really going to have 64 hours?" he asked "The answer is obviously no."
Let's look at some of the other provisions that would change in election law:
Early voting sites: The bill says supervisors "may" offer early voting at fairgrounds, civic centers, courthouses, community centers and stadiums. The 2011 law allows for early voting only at libraries, city halls and elections offices.
Election preparation report: Every supervisor must submit a report three months before Election Day about staffing and equipment.
Declaring elections supervisors noncompliant: The Senate bill includes an amendment that allows the state to place elections supervisors in "noncompliant status" if they miss deadlines or violate election rules.
Voter assistance/ballot brokering: The bill limits the number of voters a volunteer can assist in an election to 10 people. Further, the voter must know the person assisting him or her before casting a ballot. The bill also limits the number of absentee ballots that paid campaign workers and other solicitors can accept for nonfamily members to two.
Length of ballot items: The bill has a 75-word limit on ballot summaries of proposed constitutional amendments that come from the Legislature. The 75-word limit disappears if the Florida Supreme Court rejects the wording of the ballot summary. Democrats wanted an amendment that limited the summaries to 75 words on all attempts, but Republicans said no.
Sunday voting: The bill would allow voting on the Sunday before Election Day, known as "Souls to the Polls" drives in some black communities. Current law bans early voting on that Sunday.
The law also contains other mandates for supervisors, including requiring them to notify electors of the reason their absentee ballot was rejected and to upload early voting and absentee ballots the day before Election Day (but not publicly post it).
Smith told PolitiFact Florida in an interview that his comment referred to "things that affect voters and their time in line." He called other measures that affect supervisors "inside baseball."
He is right that the bill primarily mandates two changes. But he omits that some discretionary changes in the bill are a big deal and are expected to change how elections are operated in large counties. Elections supervisors in at least some counties are likely to restore early voting on the Sunday before Election Day and are likely to add more early voting sites and go beyond the mandated minimum hours. Plus, we found a few provisions that are not discretionary and would affect voters.
We rate Smith's claim Half True.
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The election bill "allows persons to correct an absentee ballot if they did not sign it and requires an extra two hours a day for early voting. Everything else in this bill is discretionary."
Florida Senate Democratic leader Chris Smith, April 21, in an op-ed
The ruling: HALF TRUE
Some of the discretionary changes are expected to change how elections are operated in large counties. Elections supervisors are likely to restore early voting on the Sunday before Election Day, and they are likely to add more early voting sites. We also found a few provisions that are not discretionary and would affect voters. We rate the statement Half True.