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Florida’s midterms were a mess. So what do lawmakers plan to do about it?

Whatever happens, it will lay the groundwork for the 2020 presidential election in Florida
Will the Florida Legislature make it harder for a Rays stadium deal? TIMES FILE PHOTO
Will the Florida Legislature make it harder for a Rays stadium deal? TIMES FILE PHOTO
Published Dec. 14, 2018

What went wrong in Florida's 2018 midterm election?

How can it be fixed?

Those questions loom over Florida's lawmakers as they deal with the aftermath of the most contentious, and litigious, election since 2000.

There appears to be bipartisan consensus to do something over the next four months. But whether the Republican-controlled Legislature chooses to make incremental changes — a tweak here, a standardization there — or take on more substantive ideas is still unclear.

Also in the mix is whether they should do anything with Amendment 4, the constitutional amendment voters just overwhelming passed that should restore the vote to more than a million felons who have served their sentences.

Whatever happens, it will lay the groundwork for the 2020 presidential election in Florida, which, if history is any guide, will be just as close and contentious as 2018.

And whatever course lawmakers take, it could set up a brutal fight starting on March 5, when Florida's 60-day sprint of a legislative session begins.

"If we get into some things that have the adverse affect of suppressing votes, or specifically tailored to something like that, then this becomes a huge thing this session," said Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, the vice chair of the Senate's ethics and elections committee.

Republican leadership has been relatively quiet about what they want to see.

Late last month, House Speaker José Oliva had zeroed in on the issues in Broward and Palm Beach counties as central to any election reform.
"We need to make sure people can trust their electoral process — in this case, it was just two counties of all our counties," he told reporters at the time. "Two of them failed and in doing so damaged that trust."

But Oliva also said that enforcing existing laws, rather than creating new ones, should be examined first.

"It's an issue for us, mainly not because there are other laws we may need put in place, but because there were laws in place that were violated," he said.

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton told reporters Thursday that he's left it up to Sen. Dennis Baxley, a conservative Republican from Ocala who is leading the Senate's committee on ethics and elections.

And Galvano said he's asked his criminal justice committee chair to look at whether the Legislature needs to take action on Amendment 4.

The amendment's advocates have said it's self-implementing, meaning that on Jan. 8, many felons should be able to register to vote, without any action from the Legislature. But Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis told the Palm Beach Post that he expects lawmakers to do something to implement the law in a bill that he could then sign.  Amendment 4 advocates fear the legislature will water it down.

Howard Simon, the ACLU's former executive director who helped draft Amendment 4, said delaying the measure until the Legislature acts on it violates the law.

DeSantis' job "is to facilitate the wishes of the voters, not frustrate and delay what the voters overwhelmingly called for," Simon told the Times/Herald. "The new language of our Constitution goes into effect on Jan. 8 — and that becomes the highest law of the land. The governor doesn't have the right to set aside the Constitution."

Galvano himself is not sure.

"It may be there is nothing we need to do, and it just moves forward," Galvano said.

Baxley, whose elections committee is likely to consider an Amendment 4-related bill, also said he doesn't know whether any legislation would be necessary, adding that if it is, it shouldn't hold back any felons from registering to vote.

"There's no slow walking. There's no trying to walk it back," he said of the Legislature's process. "Matter of fact, just the way things sit, while we're having these conversations, people can go in and apply (to vote)."

In the short term, Baxley wants to bring elections supervisors and others before his committee to learn what happened in 2018. He said he expects their testimony will lead to some changes, but nothing drastic.

"My objective is very clear, and that is, 'Easy to vote and hard to cheat,'" he said.

One subject that could get special scrutiny is 'ballot harvesting,' in which candidates or their campaigns collect vote-by-mail ballots, a practice that might lead to a rare election do-over in a North Carolina congressional race.

"That gets very subtle into vote-selling," Baxley said.

Florida used to restrict vote-by-mail ballot collection to only two per person, but that law was done away with more than a decade ago, and candidates and campaign volunteers outside of Miami-Dade County are free to collect as many ballots as they like.

He added that one new idea he wanted to explore was something he saw in Bay County, which created large voting sites in the wake of Hurricane Michael, where anyone could vote in the general election.

"I thought, that makes a lot of sense no matter where you are," he said.

Currently, voters have to go to specific precincts, which print out ballots specific to that precinct. Baxley said he wants to know how Bay County was able to set up sites that could print off anyone's ballots, and whether that model could be expanded to other counties.

House Democrats held a workshop Wednesday to kick around ideas, but few bills have been filed yet.

"The time to do it is this year, when the events of the last election are very close to us to analyze what's working great, what's not working great," Baxley said.


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