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Controversial elections law rewrite clears House committee

By Lynn Hatter

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-963373.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – A bill changing how voters apply for registration and cast ballots has undergone a major rewrite in the House State Affairs Committee. Lynn Hatter reports voting rights activists say the new bill is bad for voters, but its bill sponsor says the proposal in an effort to clean up Florida's election laws and get the state in the right place for a presidential primary.

The elections bill sponsored by Ocala Republican Representative Dennis Baxley would change how people vote. Baxley says changes to the law are needed to close what he sees as loopholes in the system.

"It does protect citizens voting rights. We are creating more uniformity and clarity to the existing election code and reporting guidelines that will be timely. Every time we have an election, we do learn and I hope this bill reflects the changes we need."

Rich Templin with the Florida AFLCIO says Baxley's bill will lead to voter disenfranchisement.

"With all due respect I'm afraid there are so many unintentional consequences in this legislation that the lesson we would have learned were that there were too many people who registered to vote, too many people who voted, and too much assistance for people trying to complete the voting process."

If Baxley's bill becomes law, voters will no longer be able to change their addresses on Election Day. The same goes for name changes. Those people would have to vote on a provisional ballot- which may, or may not be counted. Danielle Pendergast with the Florida ACLU says she's most worried about that part of the bill.

"If the individual moves, which is a common occurrence, especially for low-income and minority communities, and their name does not appear at their new polling place, they are given a provisional ballot that is likely to be discarded in Florida because you can't vote in a prescient that you are not registered."

David Stafford, Supervisor of Elections for Escambia County, says from an administrative standpoint, increasing the number of provisional ballots creates more problems.

"The more people you have voting provisionally at the polling place, the more disruption you have at the polling place. And then secondarily on the backside, is our role on the canvassing board. Anytime you do to increase potential ballots, is going to increase that workload."

In addition to toughening up language on voter registration, the bill also calls for groups that hold voter registration drives to submit applications within 48 hours. That's a big shift from the 10-day period they have now. Bill sponsor Representative Baxley says narrowing the time helps avoid fraud.

"This is where we've had problems. The Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck registrations. SO this is why we want to tighten this in. So that it's validated, and anybody who signs a registration has assurance. We have data on the people collecting so we have data and we know where to go to research and investigate the problem."

But the Florida League of Women Voters doesn't see it that day. League lobbyist Ben Wilcox says if the bill goes through lawsuits are sure to follow.

"You do know the league of women voters won a lawsuit against the state over language just like this. And we'll be happy to go through that again, if we need too. But you might want to think about saving the taxpayers some money."

In his final comments before the committee, a clearly-frustrated Baxley blasted his opponents, saying his only goal is to prevent fraud in Florida's elections system.

"I've heard un-American what in the world? I've heard no access, we just got it last night Folks, I filed this bill on March 7! And I guarantee you that 99-percent of the people who lined up here and bashed this bill have never met me, never talked to me, and never said anything about this elections bill that I filed March 7. But I am telling you that when you leave all this stuff open you open it to abuse and you discredit the validity of that tabulation for everyone who participated."

The original bill was filed at the beginning of March, but the re-write amendment came out Wednesday night. It also includes plan to create a nine-member voting panel to decide on a date for the state's presidential primary. Democrats want to move the membership numbers from 9 to 12, with representation evenly split among the parties. Democratic Representative Jeff Clemens of Palm Beach brought the question to the Committee Chairman Seth McKeel.

"Political winds change and I thought that by putting four members to each of those it would be two and two and would be truly bipartisan instead of giving one party an advantage which again, those things change 8-12 years from now."

McKeel: "Maybe they will."

Clemens: "Would that be considered a friendly amendment?"

McKeel: "doubtful."

Republican leaders are looking to the presidential primary panel in response to increasing pressure for Florida to move its January 31st primary date -- which violates rules set by both major national parties.

It's on a fast-track in the house, narrowly clearing the State Affairs Committee on a largely partisan vote. It now heads to the House floor. A similar proposal is in its last committee stop in the Senate.