Fla. election officials frustrated with reform law's implementation
Year after signed into law supervisors still sorting out impacts
In 2011 Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed into law sweeping election reform legislation that limits third-party registrations, decreases the length of time for early voting and creates more reasons to cast a provisional ballot.
At the time the governor signed the legislation into law, many supervisors of elections throughout the Sunshine State were concerned about the impacts the new law could have not only on their offices, but also on voters.
Now, just about a year later, some of those concerns, in the eyes of the people responsible for administering elections, seem justified.
“Several of the changes were very unpopular with supervisors of elections, but at the end of the day, barring court intervention, we must implement any new laws passed by the legislature and signed by the governor,” said David Stafford, supervisor of elections for Escambia County.
Stafford is also the current president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections.
“That said, as an association we will continue to advocate for changes to Florida’s statutes, including provisions contained in HB 1355, to improve the administration of elections in our state,” Stafford said.
Elections supervisors across the state noted that the new law has involved changing training manuals, re-training volunteers and more administrative work, on top of an already busy presidential election year.
“Any time we are faced with significant statutory changes, there is a period of adjustment in implementing the new provisions. This can be particularly challenging in a presidential election year,” Stafford said. “One of the biggest challenges was that most of the law went into effect upon enactment, unlike previous years when there was a delay between enactment and the effective date.”
The fiscal impacts of the law have varied from county to county and provision to provision. In Lee County, Supervisor of Elections Sharon Harrington said there has been an increase in costs because of the increased use of provisional ballots. There have also been other cost increases.
“One of our biggest expenses impacted by the new laws would be our poll worker training manuals,” Harrington said. “Every time they change the law, the instructions need to be rewritten and then the manuals revised and reprinted.”
Perhaps one of the most public impacts of the new law has been on third-party registration drives. Many organizations, including the League of Women Voters have refused to hold registration drives.
And there have been several high profile incidents of individuals running afoul of the law, specifically several high school teachers, including one in Volusia County, who have been threatened with fines because they have helped students register to vote.
“I have refused so far to attempt to bypass a bad law,” said Ann McFall, supervisor of elections for Volusia County. “I know there are SOE's that swear in teachers and school administrators to be deputy SOE's, but that seems as if the bad law is being circumvented.”
While the new law, without a doubt, has caused some headaches for election supervisors in Florida, there has been a silver lining for at least one of the supervisors.
“Many counties already had great voter outreach programs and have been working in their communities for many years,” said Vicky Oakes elections supervisor of St. Johns County. “This affected us mainly because we did not have an active voter outreach program. With the change in the law it became a great opportunity for us to begin getting out into our communities.”
Since the implementation of the law, Oakes has been sending out elections staff and volunteers to staff voter registration drives across the county
“I could staff the drives without my regular staff, but I feel it works best to have a team of an employee and a volunteer,” Oakes said. “Great team building. We get to know our volunteers and share more about the work we do. Time well spent together.”
The Florida League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote and several other voting rights groups have filed a lawsuit challenging the law. In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it is seeking a trial for its challenge to the law. With August local primaries and of course the November general election looming, the status of the law and lawsuits has supervisors concerned about voters.
“It’s not so much that I would be concerned about my office if we were required to make changes again before November. We’re used to it and pretty much roll with the punches,” said Harrington. “However, I would be extremely concerned for our voters. Constant changes in the electoral process will only serve to increase confusion for our voters, which I truly believe leads to the disenfranchisement of many citizens.”
As Stafford pointed out, “uncertainty is the enemy of election administration.”