Miami lawmakers file bills to reinstate early voting Sunday before Election Day

In response to the long lines that plagued South Florida polls, two Miami lawmakers have filed legislation to reinstate early voting the Sunday before Election Day.

The proposals by Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla and Democratic Sen. Gwen Margolis follow a recommendation from a Miami-Dade advisory group examining what went wrong in the November presidential election.

The group made additional suggestions Monday, including allowing voters to return absentee ballots in person at their polling places on Election Day, and setting a goal for how long the average voter should wait in line at the polls.

Advisory group members were pleased to learn about Diaz de la Portilla’s legislation, filed Monday, which also would increase the number of early-voting hours per day to 14 from 12.

Margolis’ legislation, which the group also touched on, is far more expansive: It calls for 14 days of early voting — instead of the current eight — and it would allow for more early-voting sites.

“There’s so much pressure to get this done,” Margolis said, who filed her bill in late November. “I can’t believe anyone would be against this.”

In 2011, Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed a law sponsored by Diaz de la Portilla’s committee and approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature that reduced the number of early voting days to eight from 14, and eliminated early voting the Sunday before Election Day — a day that predominantly Democratic African-American churches had used to drive “souls to the polls.”

The law guaranteed one Sunday of early voting and kept the maximum number of early-voting hours on the books — 96 — the same. In practice, that represented a drop from 2008, when then-Gov. Charlie Crist extended the number of hours to 120. Diaz de la Portilla’s bill would offer a maximum of 126 hours.

His bill also would require all of Florida’s 67 elections supervisors to inform the state of their preparations three months before a general election. The report would include staffing levels for early voting, Election Day and after Election Day, as well as a rundown of the equipment being used to tabulate votes at each site.

Miami-Dade commissioners are scheduled to consider a similar proposal, which would apply only to the county, later this month.

Though they had been resistant to adding early voting days as a way to shorten long lines before the November election, Republicans — including Scott — have since said they would consider expanding the number of days.

The Florida Democratic Party, calling the November election “disastrous” and “a national humiliation for our state,” bashed Diaz de la Portilla’s bill Monday for not bringing back the 14 early-voting days available in 2008.

“This Republican proposal is a Band-Aid over a gaping wound, and fails to restore the electoral voting rights which were stripped from Florida’s citizens by Rick Scott,” party Chairman Rod Smith said in a statement.

A majority of Miami-Dade commissioners agreed last month that asking the state for one extra day — the Sunday before Election Day — would have a more realistic chance of receiving legislative approval than pushing for a return to 14 days.

But some advisory group members still held out hope Monday that lawmakers would consider reinstating the full two weeks. Margolis and two Tampa Bay Democrats filed three almost-identical bills that seek to expand early voting by more than just another Sunday. They face stiff odds in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

The bills, filed by Margolis, Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa and Rep. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, would expand the maximum number of early-voting hours to anywhere from 144 to 168 hours.

“The cutting of early voting wasn’t just harmful to Democrats,” Rouson said. “It hurt Republicans. It hurt independents. The governor and leaders of the House and Senate said it’s time to make a change. Surely, they can’t be against giving people more opportunities to vote and more convenience for them to vote.”

The three Democratic bills would also allow counties to open early-voting sites in more locations — a change Miami-Dade has been requesting since 2006. Early voting sites are currently limited to elections offices, city halls and public libraries.

Diaz de la Portilla’s bill does not address early-voting sites.

“Why not?” a miffed Mayor Carlos Gimenez asked at advisory group meeting Monday.

For state and federal elections, the county has usually offered early voting at 20 locations, out of a potential 85, though 11 of those are storefront libraries without room for a polling place.

Some of the other sites, administrators say, are too small or do not offer adequate parking; Gimenez, a Republican in a nonpartisan post, has committed to opening more sites in the future for major elections, even if the Legislature doesn’t allow for more types of locations. This year, the sites cost $20,000 a day to operate.

Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican in charge of crafting an elections bill in his chamber, said he favors having more early-voting sites and hours, though he called proposals for 140 hours or more “ambitious.”

His ethics and elections committee will hold a hearing Monday in Tallahassee to take testimony from elections supervisors, including those from Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

“I agree with the governor — that we need to have additional hours and/or places for early voting,” Latvala said. “But I also believe that this is not totally the Legislature’s fault.”

Neither do county leaders. Last month, Miami-Dade Elections Supervisor Penelope Townsley issued a report outlining shortcomings at the local level and proposing a slew of fixes. They ranged from moving more full-time county employees out of their regular jobs during elections to have them work the polls, to purchasing new absentee ballot-sorting machines and electronic voter registries to check in voters.

Reviewing the “after-action” report Monday, the advisory group agreed with all the departmental recommendations, and requested that the county ask state elections officials for an advisory opinion on whether Florida law allows voters to turn in absentee ballots at their precincts on Election Day.

Gimenez also urged the group to come up with new performance criteria for the county, setting an informal goal for how long the average voter should wait in line to cast a ballot. Five minutes would be reasonable but unrealistic, for example, whereas lines longer than one hour could trigger reshuffling of resources to alleviate the waits, he said.

The mayor leaned toward a goal of an hour wait for major elections.

“Standing in line for an hour is not the greatest thing in the world,” Gimenez conceded. “Although I did stand in line for two hours in Disney World.”

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report from Tallahassee.