1. Opinion

End the war on voter fraud

Published Dec. 21, 2012

Here is the great irony of increased voting options in Florida: Cast either a mail-in ballot or a provisional ballot at the polls, and you increase the chance your vote won't count. That's because poorly crafted regulations intended to thwart fraud, which is no discernible threat, can end up disenfranchising legal voters. The Republican-led Legislature helped create this mess, and now it needs to adopt some simple fixes.

Absentee ballots: County elections supervisors like Pinellas' Deborah Clark, who push the mail-in ballots because they are cheaper to administer, note that just a tiny percentage of ballots end up rejected because of voter error. In Pinellas County in the Nov. 6 election, for example, less than 1 percent of mail-in ballots were rejected.

But the raw numbers are much more compelling. As the Steve Bousquet of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reported this month, roughly 3,600 absentee ballots in just Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties were not counted because of voters' mistakes or omissions — either the voter's signature was missing on the outside envelope, the signature didn't match the one on file, or the ballot arrived after Election Day.

Had those voters gone to the polls, they would likely not have been disenfranchised. In early voting or on Election Day, poll workers are trained and optic scan machines are programmed to give voters a second chance if they inappropriately mark a ballot or their signature doesn't match the signature on the identification they are required to have with them.

In the 2013 session, legislators should give absentee voters a similar second chance by allowing election supervisors to contact absentee-ballot voters who make a mistake before Election Day and let those voters cast a new ballot. And if they're really intent on stopping fraud, they can make it harder for someone to request that a mail ballot be sent to an address other than the one on file for the voter, such as requiring a written request with the signature of the voter.

Provisional ballots: Created by Congress in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, provisional ballots were designed as the final safeguard against disenfranchising a legitimate voter who might be the victim of bureaucratic mishap. But they have become a catchall in Florida as the Legislature has pursued its unnecessary war on voter fraud. The ripple of these changes affects everyone in line on Election Day as the processing of each provisional voter takes up to half an hour.

As Michael Van Sickler of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reported this week, 25 percent more voters were forced to cast provisional ballots because of 2011 changes to state law. They included individuals who moved to a new county before Election Day but had failed to change their address. Previously, voters who were already registered in Florida could change their addresses at the polls and receive a traditional ballot.

Legislators should revert to the old change-of-address law. And if someone does end up voting in two counties, they can be turned over to law enforcement for prosecution.