A bill aimed at preventing the problems that plagued parts of Florida during the 2012 elections sailed through the Legislature on its final day after lawmakers dropped an effort to punish problematic local voting officials.
The legislation (HB 7013) passed the House overwhelmingly, 115-1, after a similar almost-unanimous vote kicked off the session two months earlier. The Senate approved it on a nearly party-line vote, 27-13, with Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, joining every Republican in approving the measure.
In a statement issued following the vote, Gov. Rick Scott said he will sign the bill.
"Following the 2012 General Election, we recognized there were inefficiencies in our election system that needed to be corrected, and I am very pleased with the Legislature’s responsiveness," Scott said.
Elections reform vaulted to the top of legislative priorities after the November problems, which included some voters not casting ballots until after networks had projected President Barack Obama the winner nationwide. It also took days before Obama was declared the winner in Florida.
The bill had passed the House in March and the Senate last week, but had languished as the two chambers worked on the final shape of the proposal.
The bill that passed would allow up to fourteen days for early voting, though local supervisors could remain at the current eight days, and allows for more flexibility with early voting sites. It would limit the length of some ballot summaries for constitutional amendments.
And, in a move that the Tampa Bay Times-Miami Herald's Tallahassee bureau reported was aimed at helping U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's presidential ambitions, it would dissolve a committee that sets the date of the presidential primary and instead require that vote be held on the first Tuesday that complies with party rules.
Both Republican and Democratic delegations to national conventions had lost members over the last several years as Florida vied for an earlier primary date.
Lawmakers paved the way for the agreement when Senate members agreed to a House demand to get rid of a provision that would have allowed the secretary of state to punish county elections supervisors. All but one of those officials is elected, and House members noted that there are already ways under current state law to take care of a supervisor who gets too far out of line.
"We feel like that accomplishes what we need to, remembering of course that these supervisors are elected constitutional officers, like we're elected as well, and ultimately, they're accountable to their communities for what they do or don't do," said Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton.
Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who sponsored the upper chamber's version of the bill, pinned the blame for the deleted provisions on the protests of local supervisors.
"So the House buckled on that," he said. But Latvala agreed to the change to get the bill through.
Democrats remained divided on the measure, with those in the House praising the bill even as they saw it as a partial solution.
"It takes men and women of maturity to understand when you've done something in error to come back and correct it," said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. "And we saw what happened in the November elections, and as a body we have come back this year to correct it. ... I look forward to us coming back next session and fixing it just a little bit more."
Groups that have traditionally sided with Democrats on voting-rights issues also welcomed the legislation.
"We believe the changes in this bill will help prevent the long lines, observed all across the world, that Florida voters endured last November," said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters, in a statement.
But Senate Democrats were tepid in their comments on the bill, and the Florida Democratic Party blasted it, saying lawmakers should have undone a bill passed a couple years ago that was blamed by Democrats for many of the elections problems.
"A full repeal of HB 1355 would have solved the vast majority of the problems we witnessed last year, and today's half-hearted attempt by the GOP at 'reform' only hurts the process," said Scott Arceneaux, the party's executive director. "It is certainly not the last word."