'Realistic' Or Not 'Far Enough'? Lawmakers React To Scott's Proposed Election Reforms

Jan 18, 2013

In the battle over how Florida runs its elections, Republicans and Democrats have largely been on opposite sides. But lawmakers say, everyone’s getting on the same page as the governor releases his ideas for election reform this week.

The 2012 presidential election came after all House, Senate and Congressional districts had just been redrawn. It had Floridians voting on 12 constitutional amendments along with local, state and federal races. In the giant county of Miami-Dade, that meant voters had 139 ovals they could fill in on their ballots.

Lee County Election Supervisor Sharon Harrington told a Senate committee, it was all too much to handle. “It was obvious to us that it wasn’t just one issue or another,” she testified. “It was a combination of things that have contributed to our ‘perfect storm’ election.”

Harrington and elections officials from several other counties have been offering their ground-level insights to the lawmakers on the Senate and House Ethics and Elections Committees. The testimony comes at the same time that Florida Gov. Rick Scott is releasing his specific ideas for reform.

“We’ve got to make changes. I agree,” he said this week.

First, Scott wants supervisors to have more flexibility to select more or larger early voting locations. He wants a shorter ballot, with shorter summaries of proposed amendments. And finally, the governor wants the number of early voting days to remain at a minimum of eight, and then he’d let local supervisors decide if they want up to 14 days.

Two years ago, he signed into law a package of election law reforms that had shortened the early-voting time from 14 to eight days. That shortening prompted a lawsuit from Jacksonville Congresswoman Corinne Brown and others, who said it effectively disenfranchised minority voters, who typically vote early in a higher percentage than white voters do.

In a meeting with the governor, members of the largely Democratic Legislative Black Caucus chastised Scott for signing the bill into law. Scott responded by blaming the Legislature.

“You know the Legislature passed, and I didn’t have anything to do with passing that bill,” Scott told them.

The law has been a huge point of contention between Republicans and Democrats, as lawsuits by the League of Women Voters and others have challenged it on the basis of voter suppression. But ranking Democrat on the House Ethics and Elections Committee, Janet Cruz (D-Tampa), said, Scott’s new proposals are a step in the right direction:  

“ I don’t think that they go far enough, but I think they’re a good start,” she said.

She said, she thinks the 14 days of early voting should be mandatory and not optional. And she wants to make it possible for voters to be able to change their address on voting day, right at the polls. She said, she looks forward to working with her Republican colleagues to make the changes.  

“I think this opens the door for some conversation,” Cruz said, “and as we sit in the elections  and ethics committee, we’ll be able to put forward a bill that all Floridians will be happy with.”

After Scott released his recommendations, the League of Women Voters released a statement applauding him. Lee Rowland is a lawyer with New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, and she helped the Florida League mount its challenge against the state voting laws. She said, it looks like Florida is about to right its wrongs.

“There’s really a moment here for Florida to offer penance for the legislative session it had last year and seize this opportunity to become a national model for election administration rather than a laughing stock,” Rowland said.

The House and Senate committees will continue hearing testimony about what went wrong in the last election before releasing their bills.

And House Speaker Will Weatherford has released a statement applauding Governor Scott for what he calls “realistic” reform proposals.