TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Legislation to allow expanded early voting and more early voting polling sites was approved Monday by a Florida Senate committee, but Democrats opposed it because it doesn't go far enough.
Democrats filed several amendments to increase access to voting even further, and all were rejected by Republicans before the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee approved the bill (SB 600). It's aimed at avoiding the long lines and ballot counting delays that embarrassed Florida during the November election.
The bill calls for at least eight early voting days and would allow elections supervisors to expand that to 14 days, including the Sunday before the election. It also expands the places where elections officials can hold early voting by allowing polls to be set up at senior centers, fairgrounds, civic centers, stadiums and community centers.
It would require a maximum 75-word ballot summary on constitutional amendments proposed by lawmakers. That limit could be exceeded if the state Supreme Court rejects the language and it has to be revised. The bill would also move the primary up two weeks, so it is held 10 weeks before the general election, and would allow military personnel returning home from combat zones or deployed in areas where they're ready to enter combat zones to register to vote up to the Friday before an election.
Republicans passed an election bill two years ago that cut early voting days from 14 to eight. After complaints of long lines and slow counting, lawmakers are now seeking to expand early voting again.
Democrats spent about an hour introducing amendments. One would have set 14 early voting days, with the Sunday before the election as a discretionary day, instead of the minimum of eight in the bill. Another would have allowed elections supervisors even more flexibility in choosing early voting locations. One would have allowed voters to change their address at the polls without being forced to cast a provisional ballot, as they used to be able to do before the 2011 election law changes.
Republicans rejected all the Democratic-filed amendments. Committee chairman Sen. Jack Latvala grew impatient over an amendment that would have kept ballot summaries to 75 words with no exceptions. He pointed out that 118 of the 120 House members supported a version of the bill (HB 7013) that had the same summary language as the Senate bill.
"Every single Democrat member of the House voted for that bill and that language and now we're having to replay the fight today," said Latvala, R-Palm Harbor.
After the meeting, Democratic Sen. Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood quipped, "He said the Democrats in the House voted for the bill. Look, we're not in the House."
Democrats have criticized Republicans for changing election laws two years ago, saying they were trying to fix problems that didn't exist.
"The Legislature created this problem and now it wants to take us 60 percent of the way back. There's really no reason we shouldn't be taking most of the amendments we offered unless you want to make it harder for people to vote," said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.
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