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Voting changes win bipartisan support in House panel

Democrats joined with Republicans Wednesday in a bipartisan vote in support of four changes to Florida's voting laws prompted by the chaos and long lines last fall. The House Ethics & Elections Subcommittee passed the bill on a 12-0 vote.

Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, the sponsor, called the bill a "collaborative effort to address the difficult experiences by many voters in the 2012 election."

The changes, broadly supported by voters, election supervisors, Gov. Rick Scott and the state elections division, would undo two of the most controversial changes in a Republican-backed rewrite of the election laws two years ago. The bill would require early voting on a minimum of eight days and a maximum of 14 days with optional early voting on the Sunday before Election Day. It also would expand early voting locations to include county courthouses, fairgrounds, convention centers and civic centers.

Under the bill, a county could offer as little as 48 hours of early voting (six hours for eight days) but no Democrat on the panel raised an objection to the provision. The maximum early voting hours would increase from the current 96 to 168 hours, or 12 hours a day over a 14-day period.

The bill (PCB EES 13-01) also would limit ballot summaries to 75 words for constitutional amendments proposed by the Legislature.

Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, the ranking minority member on the panel, said more work is needed to prevent voters from being disenfranchised. "There's a firm realization that Florida needs more voting days. We need more polling locations and they need to be properly staffed and properly equipped," Cruz said. "I really hope we can work toward a better solution."

Among those voting for the bill was Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, sponsor of the 2011 changes that triggered a flurry of lawsuits and Democratic complaints of voter suppression that are now viewed with disfavor even by Republicans. "I don't think any of us would want to inhibit a person from being able to participate," Baxley said. 

In a deal cut between the two parties to promote a spirit of bipartisan cooperation, Democrats withdrew nine amendments, including allowing early voting at community colleges, making Election Day a paid holiday and requiring early voting on the Sunday before Election Day. The amendment sponsors, Reps. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation and Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, said they would propose them later when the bill gets to the House floor during the regular spring session.

-- Steve Bousquet