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Florida Enacts Election Law to Ease Long Voter Lines

Gov. Rick Scott has signed into law a number of election law changes that roll back ones made by GOP lawmakers in 2011. The changes focus on expanding voter access and easing long lines at the polls.

By Mary Ellen Klas

Gov. Rick Scott has finished the fix of the flawed election law that relegated Florida to a late-night joke in 2012 by signing an elections clean-up bill passed on the final day of the legislative session.

The measure, signed by Scott late Monday before he left for a trade mission to Chile, reverses several provisions implemented in 2011 by GOP lawmakers in anticipation of the 2012 presidential election.

Those changes, criticized by Democrats as an attempt to suppress votes for President Barack Obama, limited the early voting that the president's campaign capitalized on in 2008. The 2011 law also prevented early voting on the Sunday before Election Day and prohibited voters, particularly students, from changing their voting address at the polls.

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Scott, who had previously signed the 2011 bill into law and refused to use his executive powers to extend early voting in 2012 despite numerous requests, acknowledged the system needed a fix.

"There were inefficiencies in the 2012 General Election -- and our system needed to be corrected,'' the governor said in a statement on Tuesday. "I asked the Legislature to enhance our system of elections and they met the challenge."

League of Women Voters of Florida President Deirdre Macnab hailed the reforms, saying "it will go a long way in repairing the damage done by the 2011 voter suppression bill."

She conceded, however, that persuading lawmakers to pass HB 7013 was not easy, adding that "sometimes it felt like climbing a mountain with concrete boots" and she urged the public to "stay vigilant to ensure that our elections system does not slide backwards."

The governor's staff said Monday that he had planned to announce the bill signing on Friday, when he returned from the trade mission, but instead it was accidentally included in a stack of budget bills that the governor signed late Monday.

The 2011 changes, as well as the Legislature's decision to add several lengthy constitutional amendments to the ballot, resulted in long lines at polls in several urban areas of the state, particularly Miami Dade where some voters waited more than eight hours to cast ballots.

The long waits, and the national attention Florida received because of the allegations of voter suppression, encouraged many voters to stay in line even after Obama was declared the victor.

The voting issues gave Florida another election-year black eye and provoked the GOP-controlled Legislature to create select committees to craft a solution.

The law not only restores the early voting to a mandatory 64 hours over eight days and up to 168 hours over 14 days, it also gives the 67 county supervisors of elections the discretion to schedule early voting on the Sunday before the election.

The law expands the pool of locations available for early voting and, for the first time, requires that vendors of voting systems disclose defects in their systems. It limits the wording of constitutional amendments lawmakers put on the ballot to 75 words. And the law partially restores a provision that allows voters to change their addresses on Election Day.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential candidate for president in 2016, persuaded lawmakers to remove an election law change he had championed as House speaker in 2008 -- designating Florida an early primary state. The provision backfired for political parties as they were punished by their national parties who stripped them of half of their convention delegates. By restoring Florida's primary to March, Rubio now may benefit from the full contingent of primary delegates if he seeks the nomination in 2016.

The bill also reduces restrictions imposed on absentee ballot voters who fail to sign their forms but, in an effort to stop fraud, tightens the requirements on people who request absentee ballots.

The measure received bipartisan approval in the House but was criticized by Democrats in the Senate, who said it gave elections supervisors too much discretion and made it more difficult to distribute absentee ballots.

The Advancement Project, a left-leaning civil rights advocacy group, criticized the bill as inadequate and called for more resources to be devoted to poll workers and machines.

(c)2013 The Miami Herald

Brian Peteritas is a GOVERNING contributor.
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