Elections ‘glitch’ bill moves forward on Day 1 of the Florida legislative session

Judge Betsy Benson, canvassing board chair, left, and Judge Deborah Carpenter-Toye, canvassing board member, examine a damaged ballot during the election recount in Broward County on Nov. 14, 2018.
Judge Betsy Benson, canvassing board chair, left, and Judge Deborah Carpenter-Toye, canvassing board member, examine a damaged ballot during the election recount in Broward County on Nov. 14, 2018. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Don’t call it an overhaul of the elections system, but a bill crafted to fix some of the problems that plagued the Florida midterms is moving forward in Tallahassee.

On the first day of the 2019 legislative session, the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee got behind legislation crafted by staff, voting Tuesday to support a “glitch” bill that seeks to address specific issues identified by elections supervisors following the November recount.

Jonathan Fox, chief attorney for the committee, said the bill was written primarily with the input of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections and with the idea that the elections were mostly successful despite some high-profile meltdowns.

“Elections are not perfect. They’re never going to be perfect,” he said. ”What we’re trying to guard against are systemic problems.”

For instance, the bill would eliminate the option to use the ballot design that appears to have caused thousands of voters to skip the U.S. Senate race in Broward County. And it would prevent the recount vote-counting meltdown in Palm Beach County by requiring that tabulating machines be able to recount multiple races simultaneously.

Supervisors would also be allowed to start tallying mail votes one week earlier than currently allowed, and a deadline to request and send mail ballots would be moved to four days earlier in order to reduce the number of ballots stuck in the mail past Election Day. Meanwhile, any voters whose mail ballots or provisional ballots are rejected due to mismatched signatures would need to be “immediately” notified and be given until 11 days after the election to fix the problem.

Those changes alone would address some of the biggest problems that became glaring when races for U.S. Senate, governor and agriculture commissioner fell within such thin margins that they required statewide recounts. Florida’s elections supervisors aren’t behind all the changes, according to FSASE President Paul Lux, but he said concerns have been limited.

The bill will head next to the desk of Senate President Bill Galvano, who has the discretion to send it before the full chamber or place it before other committees. It does not yet have a companion in the House, where Speaker José Oliva has described November’s problems as an issue of people ignoring the laws rather than a problem of inadequate policies.

The bill is also just one of several different pieces of legislation seeking to address the problems of the recount or to tweak the elections process. Two other bills, each seeking to end Florida’s public campaign financing system and sponsored by committee Chairman Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake, passed by a 4-3 vote Tuesday in the same committee along partisan lines.

The broader committee bill received unanimous support from committee members in attendance. But Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami, made a point during the hearing to say that it lacks any sweeping systemic changes, such as automatic voter registration or permanent mail ballot sign-up.

“This is not an election reform bill,” said Rodríguez, who has sponsored a more aggressive version of the same legislation. “I wouldn’t even necessarily say this is a tune-up. I’d just say this bill is just making sure we have four wheels.”

David Smiley is a Florida native (yes, they exist) and veteran of South Florida journalism. He’s covered schools, cops and crime, and various city halls, earning awards for stories about municipal pensions and Miami Beach’s police department. He became the Miami Herald’s political reporter in 2018 and covered the midterm elections and recount.