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Divided Senate approves voting-law changes along party lines

A divided Florida Senate approved a set of changes to election laws Wednesday on a 26 to 13 party-line vote, with every Republican present voting yes and every Democrat present voting no.

The bill expands early voting sites in future elections and gives absentee voters a second chance to correct their ballots if they forgot to put a signature on the ballot envelope. But it mandates only eight days of early voting for eight hours each day, as requested by the elected county supervisors of election. Supervisors have the option to extend early voting to 14 days for 12 hours each day.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, withdrew a highly controversial provision that would have limited the assistance people can get at the polls, such as non-English speaking voters.

"I believe we've improved the situation," Latvala told senators. "I'm sorry that some of our colleagues here don't think we have."

Democrats remained strongly opposed to the bill because it did not mandate 14 days of early voting, including on the Sunday just before Election Day. They said Republicans missed a golden opportunity to fix all that went wrong in Florida in 2012 that made the state a nationwide laughingstock on late-night comedy shows.

"The problem we have is, we don't mandate Sunday voting," said Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. To the argument that 14 days of early voting is a financial hardship in small rural counties with few voters, Smith said: "Constitutional rights should not be subject to economic analysis."

-- Steve Bousquet