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Senators take field trip to voting equipment center


State senators went on an unusual two-hour field trip Tuesday to check out the internal workings of a voting equipment center in Tallahassee where ballots are cast and counted. The site visit by members of the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee was hosted by Ion Sancho, the long-time Leon County elections supervisor who has been an outspoken critic of Republican-backed changes to state election laws.

Leon is one of the state's most heavily Democratic counties and consistently ranks among the highest counties for voter turnout. With about 191,000 voters, it's a medium-sized county with just one city, and it's also a college town, with two large state universities. 

Directing the tour was the committee chairman, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who has toured his hometown elections operation in Pinellas but who wanted to give other senators a chance the learning experience of seeing a voting center from the inside.

Latvala said he would like to find a way to reduce the chances of absentee ballots being tossed out because of non-matching signatures, which he said could be helped if elections offices could use a more recent signature on file from a precinct register rather than a voter registration form that might be decades old. "The example they showed us today was a lady who registered to vote in 1974. That's almost 40 years ago. Her signature was not the same in '74 as it is now, and I bet mine's not, either," Latvala said. "It's just a learning experience."

There was one minor partisan skirmish when Latvala noted that of about 1,100 provisional ballots cast in Leon County last fall, about 400 were tossed out for various problems, such as voters lacking identification. "That's why we have that law," Latvala said, referring to the 2011 change requiring people to vote provisionally if they moved from another county.

"That's not correct. We had a law for 40 years that worked fine," said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, referring to the old law that allowed voters to update their addresses at the polls when they voted.          

Sancho runs a highly professional operation and has held office since 1989. He told senators the horrifying experience of the 1992 election when he decided to use an automatic letter opener to open 22,000 absentee ballot envelopes,a process that damaged the ballots just enough so that every one of them had to be duplicated by hand. "We learned from our mistakes," Sancho said.  

-- Steve Bousquet