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Election bill opponents reject "compromise"

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By Tom Flanigan

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-966049.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – This week, the Florida Senate Budget Committee voted along party lines to significantly change the state's election law. The bill that left the committee contained what supporters are calling a "reasonable compromise". Tom Flanigan reports that opponents are calling it something completely different.

As originally written, the bill would tighten the requirements for non-government groups that register voters. Another provision would not allow people to cast regular ballots on Election Day if they picked that time to make changes to their registered name or address. It would also shorten the length of time for early voting in Florida from the present fifteen days to seven. All of this has prompted a firestorm of protest from voter rights groups. Now the latest version of the bill contains what supporters say is a major concession to opponents although the seven-day early voting restriction would stay in place, early voting sites could be open up to twelve hours a day. Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho is not impressed.

"This compromise is nothing but a sham! It purports to place now on the backs of the supervisors either you accept a shortened window for early voting, or you blow your budget up, and that's not a compromise at all."

That's because, Sancho says, overtime costs for staffing early voting sites for twelve instead of eight hours a day will be enormous.

"I have data from only fourteen of the sixty-seven counties. So far, the total is more than one-point-eight million dollars out of county coffers for just those fourteen counties. And that does not include counties like Broward, Duval, Brevard these are BIG counties."

With nearly all Florida counties already chopping budgets at a feverish pace, Sancho doesn't see many, if any county elections supervisors, spending more money himself included.

"Where am I going to come up with 112,000 additional dollars to pay time-and-a-half for the expanded hours that they are so graciously saying that I can spend my moneys for? The current system of fifteen days works well, is cost-efficient and should be kept."

And it's not only Sancho who has problems with the proposed changes. The bill sets forth a long list of new requirements for third-party organizations that register voters. The best known of these is the League of Women voters. The League's Marilyn Wills says it will not make life easier for her people.

"No, this is a volunteer organization. It's not like I'm running a business where if you don't do what you're supposed to do I fire you. I mean these are people and we'd have to have you know we have over a hundred members. Some weeks we have over two hundred members. Anyone who might register a voter would have to go in and do one of these sworn statements."

But bill supporters insist there are now just too many chances for organizations like Wills' to either, inadvertently or on purpose, sign up people to vote who shouldn't be voting. They also point to incidents like the one now under a federal probe in Troy, New York. During that city's primary election in 2009, it's alleged that dozens of absentee ballots for Working Families Party candidates were changed to support Democratic candidates. But opponents counter that Florida's elections post-2000 have been a national model of integrity and credibility. Brad Ashwell with the Florida Public Interest Research Group thinks the state should be looking to expand, not restrict, voter turnout.

"We could be talking about instant voter registration where people are registered when they're eighteen. We could talk about offering mandatory early voting on college campuses, rather than a provision that would lead to students being denied their vote. And we could be talking about making election day a holiday. Really, it should be. I mean, that's the status and importance we should be putting on our elections process."

The Florida House has already passed its version of the election law change. The Senate version, with the early voting "compromise" in place, seems poised to do the same. But Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho doesn't think this is the end of the story.

"The State of Florida is not going to be the final arbiter on these laws. All voting practices in Florida have to be reviewed by the Justice Department to ensure that there is no retrogression in minority voting and, quite frankly, this bill will not pass that standard."

And, there are always the courts. The League of Women Voters' Marilyn Wills says her organization has successfully sued the State of Florida over restrictive voting laws before. She sees no reason why it can't happen again.