State Politics

Online voter registration gains momentum in Florida

Ereyda Monge fills out her voter registration form at the Miami-Dade Elections Department in this 2012 file photo.
Ereyda Monge fills out her voter registration form at the Miami-Dade Elections Department in this 2012 file photo. Getty Images

Florida would become the 25th state to allow people to register to vote online under one of a series of voting proposals awaiting consideration by the Legislature.

It’s an idea Democrats have pushed for years without success. Now Republicans are also supporting it — but only after the 2016 presidential election.

Twenty states now allow online registration, including Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana. Four more have passed laws to implement it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Under Florida law, a person who wants to vote must mail or deliver a voter registration form to an elections office, a decades-old system that elections supervisors say is cumbersome and expensive.

A bill by Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, would create an online voter registration system in 2018, after the next presidential election. Her bill (HB 1161) has the best chance of passage, because Republicans control both houses of the Legislature.

“Look how many times government has put technology in place and screwed it up.” Passidomo said. “I want to make sure it’s working. ... If it could be done sooner, that would be great. There’s no intent to just drag it out.”

The League of Women Voters of Florida says it should be done sooner, and that people already have waited far too long for a basic convenience that’s now a matter of routine in nearly half of the country.

“It’s a mystery to us, and it should be of great concern to voters,” League President Deirdre Macnab said. “This is not rocket science. It’s a win-win. There’s no reason for delay.”

League members are expected to push for the quicker timetable this week when they hold their annual two-day lobbying blitz at the Capitol, including a gala at the historic Old Capitol with Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and other legislative leaders.

Among other election-related ideas on the table:

▪ Allowing cities to hold elections in which all voters can cast mail ballots.

▪ Giving voters until 5 p.m. the day before the election to update their signatures when their mailed ballots are in danger of being invalidated because the signatures don’t match.

▪ Allowing the fastest-growing part of the Florida electorate, voters with no party affiliation, to vote in party primaries.

▪ Adding three forms of ID that voters can use at the polls: a passport, veterans’ health identification card and license to carry a concealed weapon.

Of all the proposals, online voter registration may be the biggest change.

Corley said supervisors of election want it to happen “sooner rather than later,” but added that the focus in 2016 should be on running a smooth presidential election.

Gov. Rick Scott and his administration have not taken a position on the issue.

Scott has cited the potential for voter fraud by noncitizens signing up to vote. But he recently dropped an appeal of a federal court ruling that said his administration’s 2012 purge of potential noncitizens from the rolls violated federal law.

To minimize the potential for fraud, an online registration system would rely on accurate data compiled by the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to verify each applicant’s identity.

Through January, Florida had nearly 12 million registered voters, but more than one in five adults in the United States are not registered. Studies show they tend to be younger people who are more Internet-savvy.

Elections supervisors say more people would vote if they could register online and that it is not a partisan issue, as a legislative position paper said.

A bill (SB 228) sponsored for the second year in a row by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, would create online registration by Jan. 1, 2016, in time for the next race for the White House in which Florida is expected to once again be the most decisive battleground state.

“I’ve been encouraged by the fact that many issues we as Democrats have brought up over the past decade are finally receiving attention by my colleagues across the aisle,” Clemens said.

Unaffiliated voters now account for one of every four voters in the state, but they are not allowed to vote in primary elections except in nonpartisan races such as for judgeships or school boards. Voters not affiliated with either party outnumber Republicans in the state’s two largest counties, Miami-Dade and Broward.

The proposals to create so-called open primaries by allowing voters of no party affiliation to vote in one-party elections are HB 1079 and SB 1492 and are sponsored by Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, and Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando.

Both bills face a steep uphill climb in a Republican-dominated Legislature, but the chairman of the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee, Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, said he would schedule any elections bill that was a “good idea.”

Florida has a long track record of controversy in its handling of elections. A series of lawsuits followed a decision by the Legislature in 2011 to limit dates and times of early voting, but in response to intense criticism, lawmakers expanded maximum early voting days and locations the next year.

The state has one of the nation’s most restrictive voter registration systems, prohibiting people from registering fewer than 29 days before an election.

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

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