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Partisan divisions return as Senate panel OKs voting bill

It was bound to end sooner or later, and it did on Monday.

The bipartisan cooperation that marked early work on an elections bill vanished as Democrats on the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee repeatedly forced roll-call votes on amendments the Republican majority opposed.

The GOP prevailed on a series of 8-5 votes and on final passage of the bill (SB 600), sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the panel's chairman. A visibly peeved Latvala at one point said he would consider giving way on a point the Democrats wanted, "but not now," he said, and he quickly left the hearing without speaking to reporters.

With other Republicans rallying around Latvala, the GOP-crafted bill has two major provisions that worry election supervisors: a requirement that anyone voting absentee must have an adult witness their signature, and a requirement that anyone who wants an absentee ballot mailed to an address other than their voting address must fill out an affidavit.

"This is going to impact seniors, students and our military voters," said Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley. He predicted that the witness requirement would result in a surge of uncounted absentees because voters would not follow the new step.

But most of the debate focused on Democratic maneuvering on changes Republlicans oppose.

Democrats tried to mandate 14 days of early voting at 12 hours a day, including the "Souls to the Polls" Sunday immediately before the election. That failed, and the bill calls for a minimum of eight days of early
voting at eight hours a day. Election supervisors can provide up to 14 days at 12 hours a day, but, as they requested, it's at their discretion and not mandatory.

Democrats tried to add as early voting sites "any suitable location," and that failed too. Republicans have agreed to expand early voting sites to include "fairground, civic center, courthouse, county commission building, stadium, convention center, government-owned senior center, or government-owned community center" to the list of early voting sites in the future.

Democrats tried to repeal a provision in law that requires out-of-county voters to cast provisional ballots on Election Day. "It slowed the process down. That was one of the bad things in House Bill 1355," said Sen.
Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, referring to the notorious 2011 bill widely blamed for the long lines at the polls last fall.

Latvala said that two-thirds of the counties reported their provisional ballot totals, which amounted to about 9,000 statewide, including most of the state's largest counties. "That, to me, is not a big problem," Latvala said. "That, to me, is not too much work to ensure that people are not voting twice."

-- Steve Bousquet