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  1. Florida Politics

Advocacy groups find flaws with Florida voter laws

Published Sep. 24, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — Voting rights groups say Floridians face persistent barriers to vote that could result in more ballots not counting in November.

The groups say Florida should encourage more people to register to vote, that voters are inconvenienced by changes in polling places and that voters are not always told about a new law that gives them a second chance to fix their absentee ballots when they forget to sign them.

The League of Women Voters, NAACP, Advancement Project and other groups cited Orange, Polk and Manatee counties for problems they claim they found in last month's statewide primary election.

Carolyn Thompson of the Advancement Project said her group's goal is "free, fair and accessible" elections. "For us, this has been an uphill battle in the state of Florida."

The groups said Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett's elimination of polling places requires some black voters to travel longer distances to vote.

Bennett said the polling places served so few voters, it no longer made sense to keep them open. He said that months ago, before closing them, he invited the NAACP and other groups to discuss the changes and that he remains open to revisions in two years.

"I wanted to make those changes only for this election," Bennett said. "And if I'm wrong, I want to know in time to change for the 2016 presidential election."

Bennett, a former Republican legislator, said he has added two early voting sites that are in racially diverse areas. He said that "absolutely" the criticism from rights groups is meant to motivate Democrats in an election year.

"They've got to serve their constituencies," Bennett said.

Deirdre Macnab of the League of Women Voters of Florida cited figures from a national group, the Voter Participation Center, that 1.5 million adults in Florida are eligible to vote but are not registered, and the largest groups nationally are young adults (18-29) and unmarried women.

The deadline to register to be eligible to vote in the general election is Oct. 6.

Advocates faulted Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles in Orlando for not notifying voters that they can "cure" faulty absentee ballots that lack the voter's signature on the envelope. The Legislature last year enacted the provision but did not require elections supervisors to notify voters, and notification systems differ from county to county.

Cowles said his office notifies political parties, committees and candidates of all absentee voters who submit defective ballots and they should work the list. Information on specific absentee voters is not public in Florida.

"We're all fearful that if we don't get hold of a voter, that we are going to be accused of selecting which voters to contact," Cowles said.

Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, who heavily promotes voting by mail, said she sends a letter to every voter who sends in a faulty ballot that includes an affidavit that requires voters to verify their signatures.

Also Tuesday, in recognition of National Voter Registration Day, the state association of elections supervisors urged the Legislature to allow people to register to vote online "in a convenient yet secure manner." Current law requires people to mail or hand deliver an application to their elections office.

Supervisors added that the start of online voter registration should be delayed until 2017.

"Given the tremendous spotlight on Florida during presidential election years, we want the sole focus to be on a successful election during 2016," the group said.

Twenty states already have paperless voter registration systems, including Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana.

Times/Herald staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

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