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Black lawmakers’ effort to expand early voting is rejected in Senate

Deciding that the proposal was off topic, Senate leaders refused to allow African-American senators to tag a proposal expanding early voting onto voter identification legislation.

Sen. Chris Smith, D-Ft. Lauderdale, filed an amendment to HB 1461 that would have given counties the option of opening early voting locations on the Sunday before an election day. Last year, the Legislature approved sweeping new election law that, among other things, limited early voting hours and prohibited early voting within 72 hours of an election.

That effectively ended the “Souls to the Polls” initiative supported by black churches, African-American lawmakers said last week. The Sunday before an election day is one of the highest turn-out days for Black voters, they said.

HB 1461 seeks to change a different provision of last year’s election law. The measure clarifies that poll workers can use identification cards provided by voters to confirm addresses but not to challenge where a voter lives.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Coral Gables, who sponsored the measure in the Senate, objected to Smith’s amendment. It strayed too far from the topic of the original legislation and was a violation of Senate rules, Diaz de la Portilla said.

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, the Rules chairman, took a few minutes to meet with both men and research the matter before announcing that he agreed with Diaz de la Portilla. Smith withdrew his amendment.

Senators approved a different amendment sponsored by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart. That proposal allows voters to opt out of having their driver licenses scanned at the polls.

The state’s supervisors of elections requested the option of scanning licenses, saying it will expedite the registration process during high-turnout election days. But Negron said civil liberties were at stake and people should be allowed to vote without potentially giving poll workers access to private information.

"This is the defining moment of the Libertarian caucus of the Senate,” Negron said while urging senators to approve his amendment.

It passed on a voice vote, eliciting cheers from conservative senators.

“Freedom,” Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, shouted after the vote while pumping his fists in the air.