The recounts may not yet be over, but lawmakers are already considering making some changes to the state’s election laws in next year’s legislative session, incoming Senate President Bill Galvano said Friday.
Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who will take control of the chamber Tuesday when new lawmakers are seated, highlighted some of the issues that have plagued counties as they move through an unprecedented three statewide recounts after Nov. 6’s razor-thin midterms.
“I think we’ve had too many problems through too many cycles,” Galvano told reporters in a wide-ranging interview Friday morning. “It is something that I am interested in doing, taking a look at how we are working the process and if there are modifications we can make to better serve the people during an election cycle.”
Galvano said he had no specific plans, but that senators he spoke with were interested in taking up the issue: “why ballots appear, why they’re hard to track, why we have machine recounts that produce substantially less number of votes than originally reported.”
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“We have some low thresholds in Florida with absentee ballots, for example,” he said, suggesting that the “chain of custody” for ballots could be improved. When asked about pushing back certification dates, Galvano said it might be considered: “I’d rather have a system with efficacy that doesn’t require judicial intervention.”
But he dismissed a question asking if statements by Gov. Rick Scott and President Donald Trump, amid a spate of lawsuits filed on both sides, had undermined confidence in the election.
“I’m not sure that there was a lot of confidence going in — we’ve sort of been painted with that brush since 2000,” he said. “By next election cycle, voters are going to want to have more in terms of assurance that their votes are going to be properly counted.”
Galvano also expressed surprise that voters had approved 11 of 12 constitutional amendments on the ballot two weeks ago — including some he said he personally opposed — though he added he was committed to implementing “the will of the voters.”
He rejected the idea that the Legislature might narrow the scope of the amendments beyond what had been approved on the ballot. “The people have spoken,” he said. “I want to make sure we’re being true to the intent of the voters.”
That includes Amendment 4, which broadly restores voting rights to felons, except those who had been convicted of murder or sexual crimes. Galvano said that he expected some portions of the law might need legislative implementation, though he said lawmakers would not “slow-walk” putting it into statute.
Galvano spoke broadly about several items on his legislative agenda, saying that many of those specifics had yet to be discussed. But he noted that next year’s budget would have to account for the “billion dollar impact” to the Panhandle dealt by Hurricane Michael last month.
Galvano said he did not see the Legislature calling a special session to specifically address a separate fund for hurricane “stabilization,” citing reserves he said were already available. A “Rebuild 850” effort led by former House Speakers Will Weatherford and Allan Bense, as well as former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, has also been raising money for hurricane victims through the Florida Disaster Fund.
But relief for the Panhandle, including looking at potential storm hardening or improved building codes, “will be a theme for session,” he said. He declined to commit to a specific task force or separate committee, saying he expected those issues could be examined through normal committees.
Galvano also indicated he would not support some other governmental changes, such as moving medical marijuana out of the Department of Health or the concealed weapons permitting program out of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Democrat Nikki Fried, who is narrowly leading Republican Matt Caldwell for the commissioner of agriculture seat, had campaigned on conducting a full audit in the department, though she has suggested also moving concealed weapons permitting under the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Further gun restrictions, which were part of the $400 million package of school safety changes and mental health funding, are also unlikely, said Galvano, who helped construct those bills after the Parkland shooting in February. He said lawmakers would continue to consider mental health costs and school funding as a school safety commission convened through that legislation reviews lessons learned.
When Galvano officially becomes Senate president Tuesday, lawmakers will also adopt new rules for the chamber, which among other changes modify the complaints reporting process, he said. The new draft of the Senate’s rules, which were distributed to members Thursday, includes several provisions creating privilege for communications between the chamber’s general counsel and the rules chair, indicating a special master or select committee would determine probable cause and requiring the rules chair to make a decision about a complaint within 30 days.
It will also discourage senators from speaking about an alleged violation and allow meetings to be closed under the justification of protecting witnesses. The Senate is currently involved in a sexual harassment retaliation and discrimination complaint filed by a top-ranking Senate aide, and has countersued the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to halt an investigation into those claims.
A bill that would have further strengthened measures against sexual harassment failed to be passed in the final days of this year’s session. When asked about sexual harassment, Galvano said the chamber had already made some changes and that he would consider legislation that might be brought forward, though he did not say if he would support additional changes outright.
“I don’t know that there is a law change that is still necessary to come forward, but I would not be surprised if there are some bills like that and I will take a look at them.”
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Samantha J. Gross contributed reporting.