Florida counties brace for impact of new election-reform law
League of Women Voters considers litigation, vows to stop registrations
Following the disastrous 2000 election and the implementation of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), elections supervisors in the state of Florida have been faced with a host of election administration rules and regulation changes every election cycle and 2012 appears like it will be no different.
Today, Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed sweeping election-reform legislation that will decrease the length of time for early voting, create more reasons to cast a provisional ballot and will alter how third-party registrations are conducted.
“As a Supervisor of Elections in Florida, I had secretly hoped that there would be little to no legislation introduced this year that would have a major impact on elections and election administration,” said Linda Harrington, Lee County supervisor of elections. “We have been dealing with major changes to our election processes and equipment on both the federal and state level since 2002 when the Help America Vote Act was enacted. I don’t think any of us anticipated the enormity of these legislative changes to the Election Code.”
The legislation was controversial from the beginning because it was introduced late in the session and the debate was highly charged politically. The House version of the legislation (HB1355) was approved 77-38 along party lines while the Senate voted 25-13 with two Republicans breaking ranks to vote against the legislation.
"I want people to vote, but I also want to make sure there's no fraud involved in elections," Scott said at the time of the signing. "All of us as individuals that vote want to make sure that our elections are fair and honest."
Although the bill was highly partisan in nature, David Stafford, supervisor of elections for Escambia County did point out that it did include some provisions put forward by the Division of Elections and supervisors of elections. Still, Stafford and many members of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections were opposed to the legislation as a whole and not only testified against it, but also tried to work with their local electeds.
“I appeared before the legislature several times on behalf of our state association (FSASE) during consideration of a variety of election law changes,” said Stafford. “We spoke out against specific provisions, several of which unfortunately were included in the final bill. Among those were: changes to early voting, forcing certain voters who change their address on election day to vote provisionally, enhanced powers granted to the appointed Secretary of State over the independently-elected supervisors of elections, changes to how constitutional amendments may appear on the ballot, and new and enhanced reporting requirements, to name a few.
One of the biggest concerns facing many elections supervisors is the increased number of provisional ballots this legislation will create. The legislation will require voters who have moved from one county to another within Florida to use a provisional ballot instead of a regular ballot if they want to update their name and address at the polling place.
“This is a procedural change that will affect instructions given to poll workers during their required training classes, which means that the instructional manuals we use for these classes will have to be redone,” said Harrington, “Each provisional ballot must be verified for eligibility of the voter manually and must be done within a very short period of time so that those ballots that are eligible can be included in the certification of results.”
Because of that, staff may have to work overtime to complete the verification process in a timely manner. Increasing the usage of provisional ballots will increase costs because of the special envelopes required to provide elections supervisors with the information they need to verify each ballot and printed instructions given to the voters on how they can find out if their ballot was verified and accepted.
Although Florida isn’t the only state seeking to decrease the time provided for voters to cast a ballot early, elections supervisors are concerned about the impact the decreased time and flexibility of time will have on voters.
Under the legislation, early voting will begin 10 days prior to each federal and state election and will last for eight days. Supervisors have the option of offering it for six to 12 hours per day.
“I can see issues and confusion if the county my north and the county to my south offer different hours than Sarasota,” said Kathy Dent, supervisor of elections for Sarasota County. “Especially in multi-county or state races.”
Although early voting times will change for all state and federal elections (primary and general) Dent said that the greatest impact will be on the general elections, noting that in 2008 and 2010 her county had lines for early voting even with two full weeks of time. In Lee County, Harrington said 66,000 residents voted early in 2008 with long lines at all five of the early voting sites.
“The decrease in the number of days we will be able to offer early voting next year, coupled with the increase in its popularity places us in a difficult position of trying to accommodate a large segment of the registered voters in a shorter span of time,” Harrington said.
Dent and Harrington said that keeping their offices open to accommodate more people in fewer hours will put a strain on their budgets for additional personnel costs, overtime and fees for facilities and equipment.
According to Stafford, one reform elections supervisors have advocated consistently, to no avail, is greater flexibility in the types of locations they can utilize for early voting. Current law restricts early voting to elections offices, city halls, and public libraries.
The bill would require third-party groups such as the League of Women Voters, that sign-up new voters to register with the state, file regular reports and turn-in completed voter registration forms within 48 hours or face fines of $50 for each late form. The Florida League of Women Voters has said that it will cease registering voters should Scott sign the legislation.
“It’s because of the red-tape and the punitive restrictions that have been put in place,” Deidre Macnab, president of the FLWV said in a statement. “That, very candidly, we felt were designed not to control it as much as to suppress voter registration and to entrap groups and individuals.”
The League has an online petition opposing the legislation and calling on Scott not to sign it. To-date more than 15,000 residents have signed the petition. The League has also not ruled out the possibility of litigation to stop the legislation.
“We will indeed be exploring and investigating litigation which is the last route we wanted to take that ends up utilizing taxpayer money,” Macnab said.
The supervisors of elections that electionlineWeekly spoke with were uncertain exactly the third-party registration provision and the League’s threat to stop registering voters would impact their offices because many of their registrations come the department of motor vehicles.
Stafford did note that his county does see a spike in third-party registrations closer to elections — especially presidential elections — and that could potentially present added work during an already busy time
The legislation creates a committee of 10 people that has until October 1 of this year to select the date of the presidential preference primary for 2012. There has been a lot of discussion about Florida giving New Hampshire a run for its “first-in-the-nation” money and that has supervisors in the Sunshine state concerned about how they are going to pull this off.
“The primary could be anywhere from the first Tuesday in January [Jan. 3, 2012] to the first Tuesday in March [March 6, 2011],” Dent said. “This creates issues for the 67 supervisors in planning, especially for poll workers and polling locations.”
Dent also noted that the legislation moves the state’s primary from August 28 to August 14 which would mean that UOCAVA ballots must be mailed no later than July 1.
“Our candidate qualifying ends June 22. This leaves eight days to finalize the ballot, get it to the printer, proof and test, and get ready to mail,” Dent said. “It could be crunch time.”
Despite all the hurdles presented by the new legislation, elections supervisors seemed confident that some way they will make it all work.
“The simple fact is we provide the service according to the laws established. If poor performance occurs it is either a bad law requirement or poor planning to the change requirements meeting the new law,” said Mark Andersen, Bay County supervisor of elections. “Somehow election supervisors always find away to meet the challenges.”