TALLAHASSEE — After months of defending the status quo, Florida Gov. Rick Scott drew praise and criticism Thursday as he endorsed early voting changes pushed by county election supervisors.
Scott now says he supports expanding early voting days from eight to 14, with six to 12 hours of voting each day, and expanded voting locations in hopes of avoiding a return to the long lines and late counts that heaped national scorn on Florida in November.
"Our ultimate goal must be to restore Floridians' confidence in our election system," Scott said in a statement. "We need more early voting days."
Scott also wants to let counties again offer early voting on the Sunday before Election Day. That would restore voter mobilization efforts at black churches, known as "souls to the polls."
These steps, subject to legislative approval, would undo changes the Legislature passed and Scott signed into law two years ago. In his statement, Scott did not acknowledge his role in reducing early voting days or that his administration spent more than $500,000 in legal fees defending the law in court.
In a meeting with black legislators on Tuesday, Scott distanced himself from the unpopular law. "The Legislature passed it," he told them. "I didn't have anything to do with passing it."
By Thursday, his tone was much different as he urged change. "I think it is the right thing to do for our citizens," Scott said in Fort Lauderdale. "I believe everybody ought to get involved in elections. Of course, I want them all to vote for me," he said, smiling, but "I think it's the right thing to do."
When asked whether he made a mistake in signing the original law, Scott said: "I think we are doing the right thing."
It took Scott a while to get here. Days before early voting began in October, Scott told reporters he saw no reason to expand the days it was available, including the Sunday before the election. Two days after the Nov. 6 election, in which Florida's long lines drew national attention, Scott told an Orlando TV station: "Well, I'm very comfortable that the right thing happened. We had 4.4 million people vote."
Later that week, a day after Secretary of State Ken Detzner was grilled by CNN's Ashleigh Banfield, Scott instead stressed the positive, telling the Times/Herald: "Here's what people should feel good about: We have a diligent and thorough process, and every vote's getting counted."
It wasn't until Thursday — the day after a Public Policy Polling survey showed only 33 percent of Floridians approved of his performance — that Scott formally endorsed early voting changes.
Scott, who's up for re-election next year, also called for shorter ballots but stopped short of suggesting that the Legislature be forced to comply with the 75-word ballot summary limit that applies to citizen-sponsored ballot questions. State legislators ordered the full texts of several amendments on the 2012 ballot, which made voting lines longer and led to widespread confusion at the polls — most severely in Miami-Dade, with its 12-page ballot in three languages.
More than 2.4 million people cast early in-person votes in 2012, and lines stretched for up to seven hours in Miami.
Elections supervisors praised Scott's new position on early voting. "It's very encouraging," said Deborah Clark in Pinellas. Pasco's Brian Corley praised Scott for "echoing" the concerns of county election experts. Miami-Dade deputy elections supervisor Christina White said Scott is getting behind changes also supported by a task force created by county Mayor Carlos Gimenez. "Flexibility in early voting locations and limiting ballot length will go a long way to reduce lines in future elections and allow us to better serve our voters," White said.
The Legislature has repeatedly rejected pleas by election supervisors to allow early voting at sites other than elections offices, libraries and city halls.
Florida Democratic Party chairman Rod Smith accused Scott of making a conversion calculated to improve his chances of re-election.
"Heading into an election year, Scott is attempting to distance himself from his actions which have hurt Florida voters and underscored that he simply can't be trusted. Floridians will see through this," Smith said.
Howard Simon of the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups that challenged the changes in court, said Scott now must lead on other election issues, such as finding the money for counties to have more equipment at early voting sites.
"I want to give the governor credit for opening a conversation," Simon said. "Politicians don't usually take responsibility for their screw-ups."
Times/Herald staff writers Amy Sherman and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.