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Former Republican lawmaker tries to curb the worst of GOP-led election law changes

Florida House of Representatives
Then-Rep. Alan Hays addressing the Florida House

There's an old saying in Florida's Capitol that "once a senator, always a senator."But when it comes to changing some Republican votes, one former Republican senator is finding that no longer seems to be the case—at least, when it comes to election law.

More big changes are coming to Florida voting laws, just in time for the 2022 election. But one of the loudest voices of caution is coming from former Senator Alan Hays, who is Lake County's supervisor of elections. Hays recently pleaded with his former Republican colleagues to not make it more difficult for people to vote. It's complicated enough already, he said.

"Getting voters to follow instructions is not easy," Hays said. "Because they [voters] don't simply even follow the instructions -- the illustrated instructions -- to darken the oval."

Hays spent 12 years in the Florida Legislature before term limits forced him out in 2016. He was a dentist in the small town of Umatilla before he won a House seat in 2004, and soon moved to the Senate, where he opposed term limits and political correctness and was known for a blunt, outspoken style. Because of his past ties to the Senate, his new colleagues chose him to represent their views before a Senate committee this week.

"We're here today to say, please, use us as your election information source," Hays said. "Don't depend on the Internet. Don't depend on social media. Don't depend on anybody but the elections professionals here in Florida that inarguably, as far as I'm concerned, executed the best election in the nation in the year 2020."

Hays is one of four former legislators who now oversee local elections. The others are Mike Hogan in Duval County, Mike Bennett in Manatee and Lori Edwards in Polk.

This is the second year in a row that Hays has railed against his former colleagues for their proposed changes to the election laws. Last session he called it, "a travesty for them to crack down on the use of convenient drop boxes during the COVID-19 pandemic." This year it's cumbersome new requirements for returning vote by mail ballots.

Republican politics at the state capitol has changed, but Hays hasn't. When he left the Senate six years ago, a former colleague, Democratic Sen. Maria Sachs of Boca Raton, praised him for his style.

"You are what we need more of in politics," Sachs said. "Political correctness is nice, but people are tired of it. They want to hear what you really believe in, and damn the consequences."

Hays sees very serious problems ahead if Senate Bill 524 becomes law. When he recently testified on the bill he bluntly predicted that angry voters will be calling to complain, and he told the committee chairman, Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, that he will refer calls from angry voters to him.

"When they call me, I'm going to tell them to call you, Senator Baxley, because you're my senator," Hays said.

That's not what senators want to hear, which is why Hays said it.

Steve Bousquet has covered state government and politics for three decades at the Sun Sentinel, Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. He was the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief from 2005 to 2018 and has also covered city and county politics in Broward County. He has a master's degree in U.S. history from Florida State.