The Senate passed an elections bill Wednesday that would let elections supervisors expand early voting days and sites in an effort to avoid the long lines that left Florida open to criticism last November.
The bill, in part, would undo some of the changes the Republican-led Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott made to elections laws two years ago, when they cut early voting days from 14 to eight days and prohibited voting on the Sunday before Election Day. It passed 26-13.
The bill (HB 7013) would require at least eight days of early voting, but would leave it up to elections officials if they wanted to have as many as 14 days, including the Sunday before Election Day when many black churches have organized "souls to the polls" voter drives.
It allows early voting polling places at more kinds of sites, like fairgrounds, civic centers, community centers and convention centers.
"None of us like to have our state be the butt of jokes on late night TV," said Republican Sen. Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor, who chairs the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee.
But Democrats opposed the bill, saying it didn't go far enough to fix Florida elections.
"When it comes to elections, we could just do so much more and that's the stance we took — not to be satisfied with what was going on," Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith said after the vote.
He said there should be 14 days of early voting statewide instead of leaving the number of days up to the discretion of individual supervisors. He also was against restrictions on ballot collectors. The bill would prevent paid ballot collectors from possessing more than two ballots other than their own or their relatives. He said that hurts voters in senior living centers who rely on people to pick up their ballots.
The bill also would require a maximum 75-word ballot summary on constitutional amendments proposed by lawmakers. That limit could be exceeded if the state Supreme Court rejects the language and it has to be revised. The Legislature last year loaded up the ballot with anti-abortion, pro-church, tax cut and other questions designed to bring out conservative voters. The ballot length added to the problem with long lines.
The bill also would move primary elections up two weeks, so they are held 10 weeks before the general election, and would allow military personnel returning home from combat zones or deployed in areas where they're ready to enter combat zones to register to vote up to the Friday before an election.
Also, the secretary of state would be able to send a notice of non-compliance to elections supervisors if they din't report results on time or fail to follow other legal requirements. Elections supervisors could also have $2,000 in special qualification pay withheld.
The Senate did strip a provision that would have created restrictions on people who assist voters who can't read English, are blind or have other disabilities. The language would have required a voter seeking help to know the assistant before Election Day and wouldn't have let anyone help more than 10 voters. Voting rights groups criticized the language, pointing at Haitian-American and other communities where volunteers help voters who have language barriers.
The bill now goes back to the House.
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