Florida lawmakers propose ways to fix state elections

Legislation that would give election supervisors more time to count mail ballots and voters more time to fix problematic signatures began moving again Tuesday in the Florida Senate, passing out of committee after more than a month of inertia.
Early voting in Miami. [MIAMI HERALD]
Early voting in Miami. [MIAMI HERALD]
Published April 24, 2019|Updated April 24, 2019

With the dust settled on another tumultuous recount, Florida lawmakers are closer to changing election laws to hopefully avoid the problems that plagued the 2018 midterms and reduce the number of rejected ballots in a state where literally every vote counts.

Legislation that would give election supervisors more time to count mail ballots and voters more time to fix problematic signatures began moving again Tuesday in the Florida Senate, passing out of committee after more than a month of inertia. With Florida’s legislative session nearing a close, election officials who helped craft the bill are hopeful that it’s on its way to becoming law.

But anyone hoping for a broader philosophical discussion on the future of voting in Florida — or more time to conduct recounts — is bound to be disappointed this year. Outside of actions influenced by lawsuits, any changes to Florida’s elections are likely to be limited primarily to those tailored to prevent the 2018 recount drama from reoccurring in the 2020 presidential election.

“There’s a lot of different things the bill does that I think will improve access,” Paul Lux, president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, said after the Senate Rules Committee voted to support the chamber’s redrawn election “glitch” bill. “I know it’s being painted by some as somehow diminishing voters’ access to ballots. I disagree with that wholeheartedly.”

Similar bills carried by Rep. Blaise Ingoglia and Sen. Dennis Baxley — both Republicans and chairmen of the respective committees that filed the legislation — address some of the biggest problems of the 2018 election. In November, razor-thin margins led to an unprecedented three statewide recounts and stressed the largely untested policies put into place following the infamous 2000 presidential recount. Even though those changes were largely successful, the state once again became a national punchline as election supervisors in Broward and Palm Beach counties blew deadlines, lost ballots and battled conspiracy theories.

An apparent ballot-design flaw in Broward County believed to have led to thousands of voters skipping the U.S. Senate race between Bill Nelson and Rick Scott, for instance, would be prevented by changing the standards for ballot layout.

The mechanical breakdowns that kept Palm Beach County from certifying its election results until after Christmas would be avoided by requiring that election offices use vote-tabulation machines that can conduct multiple simultaneous recounts. And the number of rejected ballots — and lawsuits — would likely be reduced by creating standardized handwriting training for election workers and giving voters until the second day after the election to fix mismatched mail and provisional ballot signatures rejected by local canvassing boards.

Both bills were altered Tuesday after negotiations between the House and Senate. They remain substantially similar, allowing election supervisors to begin processing mail ballots a week earlier, create new chain-of-custody laws for ballots and require that each county elections office place mail-ballot drop boxes at early voting locations. But a provision in the Senate legislation that would have given election officials an extra week to conduct a recount has been deleted.

Despite widespread agreement that Florida needs to continue tweaking its election laws, the legislation has been criticized as an “attack on the rights of Florida voters” by some Democrats, who worry that the bill would sacrifice access to ballots in the name of efficiency.

In order to reduce the number of ballots caught in the mail, both bills move up a cut-off date for voters to request mail ballots and a deadline for election supervisors to place them in the mail. The Florida Democratic Party said nearly 54,000 votes in November would have been invalidated had the legislation been in place — prompting Ingoglia and Lux to call a press conference this month to push back on claims of voter suppression.

The disagreement underscores a broader struggle over voting in Florida, where Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to block petition initiatives and seeking to implement a poll tax on former convicted felons seeking clemency. Democratic lawmakers have also seen more ambitious election bills fail to get a single hearing as efforts to create same-day voter registration and allow late-arriving ballots to count have failed.

“They’re not looking to the future and what’s moving around elections and the rest of the states,” said Liza McClenaghan, state chairwoman of Common Cause Florida. “They’re only interested in trying to fix the things from 2018.”

That said, McClenaghan is generally supportive of the legislation pushed by Ingoglia and Baxley given the potential significance of every “glitch” in Florida’s election laws.

More than 30,000 votes were discarded in November, about three times the difference in the election between U.S. Senate candidates Rick Scott and Bill Nelson. And loopholes in the state’s policies either encouraged or did nothing to stop the mechanical meltdowns, procedural gaffes and the promotion of social media conspiracy theories.

That’s why bipartisan support in both chambers has helped the bills get out of committee in the House and Senate, even if some politicians and election supervisors are concerned about some aspects of the legislation. Lux is hopeful that, because Florida lawmakers are generally united in the belief that the state needs to address the problems that led to a chaotic recount in November, the legislation can become law.

“It’s not a perfect bill. It contains some things some supervisors don’t like,” Lux said. “The art of compromise is how legislation gets done.”