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Absentee ballot witness rule worries elections chiefs

The Senate Rules Committee approved an elections bill Tuesday on a 10-5 party-line vote, setting the stage for floor action on one of the major issues in the 2013 session.

The bill (SB 600), sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, expands early voting sites and gives election supervisors the discretion to offer 14 days of early voting, including the Sunday before the election. The minimum amount of early voting is eight hours over eight days, including the Sunday nine days before Election Day.

Latvala's bill drew a rating of "B" from the League of Women Voters of Florida, whose president, Deirdre MacNab, called the bill "strong." She said the bill would be better if it repealed the 2011 requirement that voters who move from one county to another cast provisional ballots.

The Senate bill's most controversial provision remains a requirement that any voter who casts
an absentee ballot has to get another adult to witness the voter's signature. "That is just a recipe for disaster," said Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley. His sentiments were echoed at Tuesday's Senate hearing by elections chief Paul Lux in Okaloosa County, where, he predicted, the ballots of many military personnel would be rejected.

"There's  no tangible benefit to the voter, and this provision will result in more ballots being not counted for our military members," Lux testified.

Latvala said the requirement that an absentee ballot be witnessed was the law for decades, but the Legislature repealed it in 2004. A recent Miami-Dade County grand jury recommended that it be reinstated as a check against voter fraud, and Latvala said Miami-Dade State Attorney Kathy Fernandez Rundle has lobbied in support of it.

But  election supervisors predict that a lot of absentee ballots will be discarded because voters will overlook the witness requirement. The witness provision is not in the House elections bill, and Corley said he  was "confident" that the Senate would eventually eliminate it from the bill before the end of the session.

Senate Democrats say the bill  doesn't go far enough, and that the state should mandate 14 days of
early voting in all 67 Florida counties.

-- Steve Bousquet