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Update: Voters groups say Senate elections bill becoming elections hurdle bill

The long-awaited elections reform bill (SB 600) comes before the Florida Senate today and a recent amendment has some voters groups clamoring that it has gradually become an election hurdles bill.

A last minute amendment added to the measure by chief sponsor, Senate Ethics and Elections chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, would impose new restrictions on volunteers who assist non-English speaking voters on Election Day. An effort to remove the language was rejected by the full Senate on a voice vote.

The change, conceived and proposed by former Miami Republican Rep. J.C. Planas, would ban any volunteer from helping a voter in the voting area who doesn’t read or speak English unless that person is known to the voter prior to Election Day and limits the volunteer from helping no more than 10 voters. It was added to the bill at the last committee on a vote along party lines. 

“Why add this change at the last minute?,’’ asked Gihan Perera, executive director of the Florida New Majority in an email to supporters on Monday. “Perhaps it’s because in 2012, local community residents decided to pitch in to help election officials in North Miami and other heavy immigrant areas in servicing hundreds of people who needed basic language assistance in casting their ballot.”

Perera said the measure is directly aimed at voting organizations such as Mi Familia Vota, the Haitian Grassroots Coalition, the NAACP, and Florida New Majority whose volunteers streamed to the polls during the last election cycle to help voters on Election Day to help people with language needs, the elderly, and the disabled. 

“What Sen. Latvala is doing is targeting people exactly like us because once we get to 10 people we won’t be able to continue helping -- and that’s really the problem,’’ he said.

Planas, a lawyer on the Republican legal team since 2004 and who was a poll watcher at the North Miami early voting site, said the change is not intended to affect legitimate groups like Perera’s but is aimed at individuals whom he believes were hired by down-ballot races to advise people how to vote.

“In certain places in Miami Dade, especially during early voting, we get people who hang out and attach themselves to voters they have never met before and basically, instead of voting the voters’ way, they vote their way,’’ he said. “We’ve videotaped it. We’ve done complaints to the state attorney.”

State law requires that anyone who volunteers to assist voters in the election booth must complete a signed affidavit acknowledging they are there to assist, not advise, the voter. 

Planas said the law was intended to allow the elderly and disabled to bring a relative or friend to help them at the polls and he doubts that groups like Perera’s have volunteers who fill out the affidavits.

But Perera countered that his group does indeed assist voters, many of whom are not aware they can bring their own friends to assist them. He said that during some early voting days, there would be 300 people lined up outside the polls at 6 a.m. in the morning and his volunteers would stay there assisting them all day.

If the measure becames law, “we would have to get 10 times the amount of people to get there because each person would be done in half an hour.”

He compared the bill to the 2011 election reforms that shortened the number of early voting days under the claim that it was aimed at cracking down on fraud.

"We’ve worked a ton of polls and we just haven't seen what they’re talking about,'' he said. "Mostly there aren't enough people to help folks and what this will do is penalize people." 

Current law "lets us put our best volunteers out there and, the more experience they get, the better they get at assisting people,” he said.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Democrat who represents the North Miami district, proposed the amendment to remove the language from the Senate bill during floor debate on Tuesday. He said the change is intended to suppress people from voting because it denies them the option to get help to vote.

“I want them to get in to vote,’’ he said. “Hopefully the deputies will be working to make sure people don’t tell people to vote.”

Latvala said he thinks the protest from the voters groups is misguided.

“If they don’t do it, why would they object to this bill?’’ he said.