Florida bill SB 600, which would make substantial changes to the state’s election laws, was scheduled to be discussed on the Senate floor on Tuesday. The legislation, sponsored by Republican Senator Jack Latvala, is one of the most anticipated bills of the year as it would rollback many of the 2011 changes that led to the 2012 election disaster.
SB 600 addresses a majority of the issues raised by electoral reforms made in 2011 and has received a “B” from the League of Women Voters of Florida, whose president, Deirdre MacNab, called the bill “strong.”
The bill would authorize election supervisors to organize early voting up to fourteen days before Election Day, including the Sunday preceding the election. In 2012, the early voting period had been shortened to only 8 days, resulting in long waiting lines.
However, this provision will likely be discussed more since Democrats in the state Legislature believe the bill does not go far enough and that the 14 days early voting period should be mandatory. The bill also responds to requests made by election board of supervisors to allow them to increase the number of early voting sites.
While the bill extended early voting, it also created more restrictions to prevent absentee ballot fraud. Every election cycle brings its share of scandals and 2012 was no exception.
Following the recommendation of a Miami grand jury that investigated absentee ballot fraud, Miami-Dade State Attorney Kathy Fernandez Rundle defended the reinstatement of the witness requirement. Until 2004, Florida required voters to obtain a witness signature in order to cast an absentee ballot.
The latest version of Latvala’s bill requires absentee ballots to bear two signatures: one for the voter, one for the witness.
This requirement, however, remains controversial. County election supervisors oppose the requirement because they fear that it will disenfranchise voters, especially military personal serving overseas and seniors.
In the last election, thousands of absentee ballots were already rejected because people forgot to sign them or signed at the wrong place. The witness requirement could make things worse.
The League of Women Voters of Florida also opposes the provision. The group argues it would add another layer of bureaucracy and would not prevent fraud as the witness signature would not be verified. With the opposition to the witness requirement prevailing in the House, the issue will continue to be discussed in the coming weeks.
Other important provisions in the bill include:
- Requests for an absentee ballot for another address than the one on the voter registration must be made in writing. This is contested by some election supervisors and the League of Women Voters because it would increase the burden on military personal serving overseas.
- Assisting voters at the polls would be limited. A person could only help someone else file their ballot on two conditions: they must already know the person and can only do it twice. Some organizations dedicated to helping immigrants and low income voters believe this measure will greatly affect their efforts to help people understand the ballot, especially non-english speaking voters.
- Providing more opportunities for voters with invalid absentee ballots to validate their ballot with an affidavit if time allows it.
With Florida’s legislative session ending in less than three weeks, election reform will continue to be a highly discussed issue. However, with a bipartisan consensus behind the need for change, an agreement is expected to be found eventually.