House committee approves election law changes


400-SOE-CANVAS-9St Johns County Supervisor of Election, Vicky Oakes, enjoyed a smooth Primary and General election last year and introduced an Internet service that updates voters on wait times at every precinct but some urban areas of the state were not so fortunate.

Secretary of State Ken Detzner, Florida’s chief election official, investigated complaints of voters experiencing waits of five to eight hours at the polls on Election Day, November 6th.

Although the St Johns County Canvassing Board had no trouble tabulating votes and certifying the election, some larger counties had trouble getting their reports certified to the state on time.

Yesterday, a House elections panel swiftly approved a four-part package that will give Florida voters more days and places to cast early ballots. Although the Ethics and Elections Subcommittee vote was unanimous, Democrats served notice that they will pursue amendments to make it even easier to vote.

The new package (HPCB EES-1306):

•extends the early voting period from eight days to up to 14 days,
•increases the number of early voting hours from 96 to a maximum of 168,
•allows voting to be done at sites like civic centers and fairgrounds that have more parking than the office locations currently used,
•applies the 75-word limit on ballot summaries to constitutional amendments passed by the Legislature.

Oakes explained to Historic City News reporters that she was working under a 2011 law that reduced early voting to a maximum of eight days and 96 hours, and limited her discretion to choose early voting locations.

To accommodate as many voters as possible, within the boundaries permitted, Oakes established an aggressive “absentee ballot” effort and created special red mail-boxes; used exclusively for voters to return their mail-in ballots.

Under the pending legislation, counties would have to have at least 48 hours of early voting — six hours a day for eight days — and could have up to 168 hours, extending over 14 days.

Representative Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said most of the problems last November were “logistics,” rather than operational matters. He noted that 62 out of 67 counties, including St Johns County, performed well.

Baxley sponsored the bill two years ago that reduced early voting days and applied other restrictions that Democrats claimed were intended to suppress voting by black and young Floridians. Baxley denied any such ill intent but called the new package “a fair and needed response” to problems at the polls last fall.

“There’s a common realization now that Florida needs more voting days, we need more polling locations and, in those locations, they need to be properly staffed and properly equipped,” said Representative Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, the Democratic Party’s point person on election laws.

“We made some changes that I think makes it a better statute,” Baxley said of the new plan. “I still think we had a great bill in 2011. Did we improve it today by doing some things to make it more functional? I think we did.”