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As Senate reworks elections bill, supervisors are enraged

Senate Republicans on Tuesday revised a major elections bill that addresses some voting problems that made Florida a target of national ridicule in 2012, but they rejected changes Democrats sought and added a provision -- aimed at Miami-Dade's top elections official -- that angered election supervisors.

A final vote was delayed. The bill expands early voting sites in hopes of avoiding a repeat of last year's long lines, and mandates eight early voting days for up to 12 hours each day. County election supervisors could voluntarily extend early voting to 14 days, including on the Sunday before the election.

The bill addresses the widespread problem of sloppy absentee ballots by giving absentee voters the ability to fix a problem with their ballots -- such as a missing or non-matching signature -- up to 5 p.m. on the Sunday before an election. Bowing to
growing opposition, senators also dropped a provision that would have required absentee voters to have their ballots witnessed by an adult.

The  bill prohibits paid absentee ballot solicitors from receiving more than  two ballots for people other than family members, and it prohibits people from assisting more than 10 voters at the polls -- which a Miami-Dade civil rights group, Florida New Majority, says would result in the disenfranchisement of some voters. 

A last-minute amendment to the bill gives the Secretary of State the power to place a county supervisor of election on "noncompliant status," including the loss of $2,000 in salary, for up to three years for incompetence. Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, who has been critical of Miami-Dade  Supervisor Penelope Townsley's handling of the 2012 election, sponsored  the provision. Townsley is the only supervisor among 67 who's appointed, not elected.

"It's more symbolic than anything else," Diaz de la Portilla said. "It's not about removal from office. Only the governor can do that."

Election supervisors are elected constitutional officers, like sheriffs, and the governor has the power to suspend them from office. Some supervisors were livid at Diaz de la Portilla's maneuver, which had never been heard in a committee.

"It was heavy-handed and truly a ham-fisted attempt to go after his own supervisor of elections," said Polk County Supervisor Lori Edwards, a former state House member. "It was a typical inside Tallahassee backroom deal."     

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, manager of  the bill, said he was persuaded to support the provision, recalling how former Gov. Jeb Bush had to suspend Broward County Supervisor of Elections Miriam Oliphant from office for ineptitude.

"I don't think it should get to that," Latvala sai. "This is a token kind of thing that could be used by the Secretary of State to get the attention of supervisors who are not doing the job they were elected to do."

Senate Democrats tried in vain to make early voting mandatory on the Sunday before the election; to make "any suitable location" available for early voting; and to limit future ballot questions to no more than 150 words.  The bill (HB 7013) now returns to the full House for a vote, as county election supervisors try to strip out the "noncompliant" language.

-- Steve Bousquet

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