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Latvala tees off on Sen. Chris Smith in elections-bill fight

A series of partisan clashes on an early voting bill Tuesday brought a stern lecture from Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the point man on the legislation, who said he was "taking it a little bit personal." He aimed a torrent of criticism at Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, leader of the Senate's 14 Democrats, who tried repeatedly to rework the bill to Democrats' liking.

Latvala's bill seeks to address the chaos and long lines at the polls last fall, but Democrats say it doesn't go far enough. Case in point: The bill (SB 600) mandates at least eight days of early voting for eight hours every day. Election supervisors can expand that to 14 days for 12 hours a day, including
the Sunday before the election, but it's optional, as supervisors wanted, and not

Smith offered a batch of amendments that failed on 5-3 votes in the Senate Community Affairs Committee, including allowing early voting at any precinct and mandatory 14 days of early voting including the Sunday before the election. Smith said the bill gives county elections officials too much discretion so that it will lead to varying early voting schedules. "It's almost comical," Smith said.

Latvala said the Democrats' strategy was to "keep this issue in the news and ride this horse until it dies." Then, using the sponsor's prerogative of having the last word, Latvala noted that every House Democrat supported that chamber's elections bil, and said Smith's partisanship reminds
him that the Senate used to be a more bipartisan place. 

"I have always tried to exemplify that the policies, and the people of Florida getting a good
product done, are more important than partisan advantages," said Latvala, who has often bucked Senate Republicans on issues. "We shouldn't be like Washington here in Tallahassee."

A bipartisan vote on an election reform bill would be a strategic advantage for Republicans if the new changes trigger new litigation, but Senate Democrats appear to be digging in to oppose it.

On the bill, Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux warned that overseas military voters in the Panhandle could be disenfranchised by a new requirement that an absentee ballot must be witnessed by another, a change proposed by a Miami-Dade grand jury that investigated absentee ballot fraud. "This is going to be, in my opinion, a means to discount more military ballots. I'm worried about that," Lux said.

Common Cause Florida and the League of Women Voters both said they liked the bill overall, though
the LWV raised fears over the witness requirement.

-- Steve Bousquet