Miami-Dade State Attorney wants Legislature to reinstate witness signature on absentee ballot


Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

Say the words “fraud,” “Miami” and “grand jury” in the same breath, and you’re going to get people’s attention in Tallahassee.

Especially when the subject is voting.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Kathy Fernandez Rundle wants the Legislature to reinstate an old Florida law requiring voters to obtain a witness signature from someone 18 or older in order to cast an absentee ballot.

It’s one of 23 recommendations from a Miami-Dade grand jury that investigated the practice of absentee ballot brokering in last year’s primary election.

The witness requirement, enacted after a 1998 absentee voting scandal in Miami, was wiped off the books in 2004. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, revived the requirement in SB 600, saying the prosecutor lobbied him to do so. (Witnesses’ signatures would not have to be verified.)

With the voting bill set for Senate floor debate Tuesday, county election supervisors think the witness-signature requirement is a terrible idea. They fear it would disenfranchise voters — especially military personnel.

Thousands of absentee ballots were rejected in Florida last fall because voters neglected to sign their ballots’ outside envelope or because a signature on the envelope did not match the voter’s signature on file. Requiring a witness signature would make things worse, supervisors say.

Mike Bennett, supervisor of elections in Manatee County and a former Republican senator, said he doesn’t think the provision can survive. “I really think that will come out [of the bill],” he said, “because there’s been such a pushback from the supervisors.”

Bennett said he has lobbied against the witness provision with Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, who chairs the House Ethics & Elections Subcommittee — and who so far isn’t inclined to put the witness language in the House bill.

The provision could be trade bait, meaning senators could dangle it before the House in exchange for another portion of the bill. “It might ... give us a little flexibility,” Latvala told senators.

Latvala’s bill has another section that’s causing a different kind of controversy: limiting the assistance someone can provide to a voter.

At the urging of former Republican Rep. J.C. Planas of Miami, a lawyer who handles election law cases, the Senate bill says no one can provide assistance at the polls to more than 10 people a day. In all cases, the bill says, the helper must already personally know the voter.

Planas said he saw volunteers working for candidates hanging out at Miami-Dade precincts, offering to help total strangers fill out their ballots. “You shouldn’t assist strangers,” Planas said.

But Florida New Majority, a Miami group that helps immigrants, unions and the poor, and which worked for President Barack Obama’s re-election, opposes the change, saying it would target non-English speaking voters. When Latvala offered the change last week, Democrats voted no, saying it goes too far.

Gihan Perera, director of Florida New Majority, launched an email blitz to members Monday, urging that “imposing an arbitrary limit on how many people assistors may help and requiring them to know the voter before that day curbs essential efforts to help voters understand the ballot and is wrong.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or 850-224-7263.

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