Elections bill to fix long voter lines stalls over Miami-Dade elections office

Embarrassed by an elections meltdown, lawmakers headed to the Florida Capitol this year with a pledge to undo a law that helped lead to long lines, angry voters and jeers about “Flori-duh.”

But the elections clean-up bill that the House passed on the very first day of the legislative session has yet to pass the Legislature as the last day dawns.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly support the plan to reverse a 2011 election law by expanding the number of early voting sites and days. The bill also gives people a chance to correct an absentee ballot they forgot to sign and would make it easier to prosecute people caught with multiple absentee ballots.

But there’s a major hang-up between the House and Senate: a plan to punish election supervisors deemed ineffective and “noncompliant” with the state’s election code.

“We think it’s a little bit punitive,” House Speaker Will Weatherford said Thursday, indicating the proposal would be stripped from the bill.

It all revolves around the county that was a poster child of electoral dysfunction: Miami-Dade.

The Senate wants the punishment language, partly to target supervisors like Miami-Dade’s Penelope Townsley, who defended the way her office handled the last election when some voters waited more than eight hours to cast ballots. A number of Miami-Dade voters cast ballots after President Obama was declared the 2012 winner.

“Suffice it to say no matter what the Legislature decides to do, I will continue to do my job to the best of my ability,” she said. “I really don’t take a position on whether anyone was targeted or not. I just am very confident that I will do my job,” she said. “I will comply as I have in the past with all of the requirements under statute.”

In the lead up to last year’s general election, Townsley and her staff drew up a plan to draw new Miami-Dade precincts to even out the number of voters at each polling site. But Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration decided to delay the changes at the request of some county commissioners, who feared voters would be confused as to where to cast their ballots.

County and elections advocates blame the Legislature for long lines and election troubles because of the 2011 law that cut back on early voting and made it easier to print the full texts of multiple proposed constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by the Legislature.

Coupled with inadequately equipped or sited precincts, early voting and Election Day lines stretched for hours in counties like Miami-Dade and Orange.

Amid the criticism of the state law, known as HB 1355, cosponsor Miami Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla said local election supervisors should be held accountable as well.

Diaz de la Portilla sponsored the plan last month to withhold some pay for election supervisors who don’t properly manage elections. The secretary of state can recommend the governor remove election supervisors who are deemed noncompliant for more than three years in a row.

Weatherford indicated the House would try to compromise with the Senate by making the new noncompliance language apply only to un-elected supervisors. There’s only one in the state: Miami-Dade’s.

Since all other supervisors are elected, lawmakers say, the elections’ chiefs can be called to account by voters for mismanaging elections or failing to competently run an election. So, they say, there’s little reason to give the state more power.

“As far as an elected supervisor and having the ability to punish them from the Secretary of State’s Office,” Weatherford said, “I don’t think the Florida House likes that position. I would imagine that would probably come out of the bill.”

If the House strips the language from the bill, it would have to go back to the Senate on the last day of session.

The Senate bill sponsor, Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, said the Senate wants to hold firm. “It’s Sen. Diaz de la Portilla’s strongly held belief that we should hold onto that,” he said.

Diaz de la Portilla wants the county to change its charter to call for an elected supervisor of elections just like the other 66 counties. But Senate President Don Gaetz said he doesn’t like the current language about “noncompliant” supervisors.

The law the Legislature is overhauling was partly inspired by Republican Party of Florida operatives and targeted early voting, a type of in-person ballot casting preferred by Democrats.

The new Republican-crafted bill expands the available sites for early voting and mandates eight days of early voting for at least eighthours each day. Elections officials have the option to extend early voting to 14 days for up to 12 hours a day.

Democrats have demanded the state mandate all 14 days of early voting but Republicans refused, citing testimony of urban and rural county election supervisors who prefer more flexibility based on widely differing populations from county to county.

Democrats remain critical of Republicans for not preventing future legislatures from loading ballots with a multitude of wordy questions. Miami Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, noted the struggles of 102-year-old Desiline Victor, who waited so long to vote that President Obama featured her in part of his State of the Union address where he singled out Florida for its election woes. The 2012 struggles came a dozen years after the disputed presidential election in which George Bush won the White House amid widespread ballot irregularities.

Late-night comics made "Flori-duh" an ongoing punchline ever since.

The Legislature’s new election bill, for the first time, allows people who cast an absentee ballot but forget to sign their ballot envelope a second chance to add the signature to ensure that their votes count. Under current law, absentee voters who don’t sign the envelope are not told until after the election is over that their ballots were discarded.

Three months before a general election, election supervisors must prepare a report showing staffing levels and equipment readiness, the bill says.

Counties with multi-language ballots can, with U.S. Department of Justice approval, print single-language ballots on demand for voters who request them in, say, Creole or Spanish — a time saving measure in immigrant-heavy Miami-Dade.

To help stop fraud, the bill makes it tougher to anonymously request an absentee ballot and send it to an address that’s different from the one associated with a voter. Also, those who request absentee ballots on behalf of a family member need to submit a written affidavit.

And those found with more than two absentee ballots face felony charges under the bill, which says that prosecutors no longer need to prove that a potential fraudster had the “intent to alter, change, modify, or erase any vote on the absentee ballot.”

Gaetz expected the bill would pass. Weatherford was optimistic but cautious. “On the very first day of session, we passed out a bipartisan elections bill,” he said. "Our hope is that on the last day of session, we are able to pass out a bipartisan elections bill."

Miami Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.