Fixing elections mess should be legislative priority

Published Nov. 19, 2012

The next state election is two years away, but the grading period for the new Florida Legislature starts today as it convenes for its organization session in Tallahassee. And it should be no mystery what this group of legislators needs to accomplish to restore confidence in the state's polls, two weeks after yet another botched election process inspired late-night punch lines. Legislators should commit to repealing the remaining parts of last year's voter suppression law and giving county supervisors of elections the latitude they've asked for to make voting more fair, convenient and reliable. Anything less should warrant a failing grade in two years.

The Republican governor and new legislative leaders, Rep. Will Weatherford and Sen. Don Gaetz, have been slow to commit to such changes despite the evidence. The Nov. 6 elections results reflected the lowest presidential election year turnout in a dozen years and forced thousands to wait hours to vote. And if President Barack Obama had not performed so well in other states, the rest of the nation would have been forced to wait four days to learn which candidate won the Sunshine State's 29 electoral votes.

The 2011 changes passed by the previous Legislature reduced the number of early voting days to eight from 14 and forced many people to cast provisional rather than regular ballots. The shrunken schedule was directly responsible for the confusion and long lines on Election Day, when the last ballots were cast in Miami-Dade after midnight and after Obama's re-election had been declared. Scott was grudging and late in acknowledging the chaos he and his party created, and he is running for cover by sending his elections chief on a listening tour to investigate the obvious.

The solutions are already clear to voting rights groups and some of the biggest political names across party lines in Florida. The state needs more early voting days, a higher minimum number of early voting hours statewide, more early voting sites, easier ways for voters to cast a ballot at sites within their own county and more uniform approaches to maintaining voter registration rolls.

Hillsborough County had 15 early voting sites, while Pinellas had three. The law restricts early voting to elections offices, libraries and city halls — which makes no sense, given that churches, recreation centers and other civic buildings are widely used as polling places on Election Day.

There is also room for improvement in absentee ballot processes, from procedures to ensure a ballot actually reaches the proper voter to allowing absentee voters who make a processing error that is detected before Election Day the right to cast a new ballot.

The governor's last-minute and half-baked effort to purge the rolls of noneligible voters was a debacle, too, doing more to sow confusion and strain resources at elections offices and undermine public confidence.

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Scott's initial reaction to the breakdown at the polls this month was "the right thing happened," hence the uphill climb this reform faces. But Florida voters of all political stripes have an interest in modernizing the state's elections process. There is no reason in 2012 why voters should wait eight hours to cast a ballot. Fixing this mess should be priority one for this Legislature.