A picture of how Tallahassee lawmakers plan to avoid another recount fiasco in 2020 is emerging, after several sweeping election bills were filed in the week leading up to Tuesday’s start of the legislative session.
Bills filed by Democrats and Republicans seek to address some of the same overarching problems of the midterms by giving elections supervisors more time to conduct a recount and tweaking the process by which provisional and mail ballots are rejected and cured.
The legislation would regulate ballot designs to avoid the confusion that appeared to cause voters to skip the U.S. Senate race by the thousands in Broward County, and create new guidelines to prevent the meltdown that occurred in Palm Beach County by ensuring that vote-counting machines can conduct multiple recounts at the same time.
A bill filed by the Senate’s Ethics and Elections Committee will have its first hearing Tuesday.
The bill outlines a series of reforms intended to ensure that voters with rejected mail and provisional ballots are notified immediately when their votes are invalidated because a signature does not match what the state has on file. Counties would have to reach out to voters via email, text or phone, if that information is available, to notify them of an issue and how they can fix it.
The bill would also give voters until 5 p.m. on the 11th day after an election to fix the issue. Currently, a voter has until 5 p.m. on the day before an election to fix a mismatched mail ballot signature, even though counties accept mail-in ballots through 7 p.m. on Election Day — an issue the courts have found untenable.
Voters could also receive their vote-by-mail ballots sooner, as the legislation would remove a stipulation that counties cannot start sending them out to voters until 35 days before an election. It also gives county canvassing boards the ability to start reviewing those ballots 22 days before election day rather than the current 15.
“My goal is to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” committee Chairman Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake, said.
The Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections hasn’t yet taken a position on the legislation, said Paul Lux, the organization’s president, but much of the legislation lines up with the association’s legislative priority list. He said the only issue a few supervisors are questioning is the need for the 11-day extension to cure a mismatched signature.
“If we’re allowed to start mailing them earlier, it gets them in the hands earlier, presumably they return them earlier,” Lux said.
A more ambitious bill filed by three Senate Democrats who sit on the Ethics and Elections Committee, however, would force supervisors to treat domestic mail ballots like overseas ballots and accept them as long as they’re postmarked by Election Day and are received within the following 10 days. Voters unsuccessful in their attempts to cure rejected mail ballots would be able to petition their local canvassing board.
But SB 1386, filed by Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami, may be just as notable in the ways that it’s similar to the committee bill, given that both seek to create more uniform ballot designs, further regulate signature verification and extend recount deadlines.
“If somebody has filled out a ballot and intends to vote, we should should do everything in our power to make sure that vote gets counted,” Rodriguez said.
Neither bill has a House companion, which would be needed to become law. But there’s plenty of time during the session for that to happen, and House Democrats expected to file their own legislation late Monday.
Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, expected to file a bill Monday, the day before session starts. She said the bill will seek to extend recount deadlines, require “stress tests” to ensure vote tabulation machines can meet the most intense workloads, and require standardized training for anyone tasked with rejecting signatures. She also wants to add the last four digits of a social security number as another means by which canvassing boards can authenticate a mail voter’s identity.
Several other bills have already been filed, including legislation sponsored by Baxley that would require that digital voting machines used by persons with disabilities print out a paper trail voting record, and bills in the House and Senate to let supervisors of elections use independent auditing software to conduct recounts.
Rodriguez thinks some legislation addressing issues raised in the recount will pass this session, whether it’s what he proposed or other bills
“Some of the issues were so glaring,” he said, “it’s hard for leadership to go home and say they did nothing.”
-- This story written by Caitlin Ostroff and David Smiley.