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House committee expands early voting options in latest stop for priority bill

A House committee gave Democrats a victory in the hard-fought effort to find a fix to the long lines at the polls that embarrassed the state during the last election.

The House Approriations Committee unanimously passed a bill to extend early voting hours, provide voters with more polling places for early voting and give elections officials more flexibility in setting the early voting sites.

The measure, which restores 14 days of early voting and imposes a maximum of 168 hours, restores many of the changes made in 2011. Republican lawmakers pushed legislation that year that limited elections supervisors to eight days of early voting and a maximum of 96 hours, sparking the waiting lines and delayed results that gave Florida another Election Day black eye. 

But the Republican-controlled committee agreed with Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, and passed his amendment that to set a floor of 64 hours of early voting, rather than the 48 hours the original proposal would have allowed.

Other Democrats were not as successful.

Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-Tampa, proposed an amendment to require that the state include buildings in the Florida college system as early voting sites because it would give “greater flexibility to the supervisor of elections and greater convenience and access to students and officials of these institutions.”

The bill would expand early voting sites to include fairgrounds, civic centers, courthouses, county commission buildings, stadiums, and convention centers but Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said the amendment was “unfriendly” and urged the committee to reject it. “We feel like we’ve expanded the early voting sites dramatically already,” he said.

Democrats also tried to repeal a portion of the 2011 bill that requires people who move between counties, and students who live in another part of the state, to cast provisional ballots. Rouson proposed an amendment that would have removed that requirement, allowing people to vote in their new county if they signed an affadavit.

 “What are we afraid of?” asked Rouson, who called the changes made in the last cycle “at best, a solution looking for a problem and at worst, a pandering to unfounded fear.”

But  Rep. Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican who sponsored the 2011 elections bill, urged the committee to reject the change. “Local elections can be stolen by 100 votes, 50 votes,” he said. “It may be a difficult issue to deal with, but provisional ballots are real votes if the person is eligible.”

The committee rejected Rouson's amendment as well as amendments that would have made Sunday early voting days mandatory, instead of optional, proposals easing absentee voting and an amendment to require the state to start using electronic poll books, computers that would provide real-time view of those who have voted. 

“This would resolve many of the issues members of this committee have of fraud,’’ said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. He conceded that in Florida “there are probably more reportings of UFOs than there are of fraud.”

He said the measure was “a simple fix” that will streamline voting.

The problem: the product would cost the state $22 million. The committee voted it down.

Democrats also succeeded in persuading the committee to allow more flexibility in canvassing boards.

Stephanie Kunkel of America Votes said they would like to see the 75-word limit on ballot subjects, an amendment the committee rejected, and urged the committee to revise the provisional ballot requirements.

“We’re throwing out the votes of people who are registered and who take their votes seriously,’’ she said.

Democrats commended House Republicans for working with them to improving the state’s belittled voting process, commending them for “an open-door policy and a spirit of inclusiveness.”

They said they had hoped for improvements in provisional ballots but believed the changes that were adopted made the original plan better.

“I believe it’s going to get better as we go along,’’ said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa.