A Senate committee Monday moved forward with a bill that would allow online voter registration in Florida and put new restrictions on drop-off locations for absentee ballots.
The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee unanimously approved introducing the measure (SPB 7068), which will still have to return to the panel for another vote. Because of that, Democrats backed away from offering amendments that could still become flashpoints in the debate over the measure.
Much of the controversy over the provisions in the bill focused on language that would allow elections supervisors to provide secure boxes to receive absentee ballots, but only at early-voting locations and supervisor of elections' offices.
The language is a response to a Nov. 25 directive by Secretary of State Ken Detzner essentially ordering supervisors to stop providing locations other than the supervisors' offices where voters could drop off completed absentee ballots.
But Pinellas County Supervisor Deborah Clark threatened to defy that order in a set of elections to choose a successor for the late Congressman C.W. Bill Young. Eventually, Detzner agreed not to go to court in an effort to force Clark to follow the directive.
Ethics and Elections Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said the incident is part of a long-running quest by Clark to move toward voting by mail. He claimed Clark opens just three early-voting locations in an effort to push voters toward casting absentee ballots.
"What we have here is we have one supervisor of elections who has decided to try to do everything possible to have vote-by-mail elections. ... She's made a policy decision that affects everybody, that we're going to have mail elections," Latvala said. "And I just frankly think that's wrong."
Latvala said that, in part, he was trying to force Clark to open more early-voting locations, and complained about the possible unintended consequences of voting by mail.
"I'm waiting on the day when somebody gets indicted on the Thursday before the election, and they get elected because everybody's already voted and they can't get their ballot back," he said.
The online voting-registration portion of the bill, following legislation filed by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, was applauded by Democrats on the committee and voting-rights organizations, though some are concerned about a provision of the legislation requiring people who use the method to vote in person the first time.
By encouraging Democrats to offer their amendments when the bill comes through the committee again, the panel avoided a politically sensitive clash over the possible use of Reitz Union at the University of Florida as an early-voting location. Democrats were looking to reverse an order from Detzner barring the student union from being used as an early-voting site in municipal elections.
Latvala contended that if elections officials had asked to use the site as a "bonus pick" provided by law, instead of trying to use it under a provision that allows officials to designate a community center as a site for early ballots, it would have been approved.
"I think there would have been a different answer if it had been asked that way. ... No one asked that question with respect to the Reitz Union," he said.
But UF students who showed up at the meeting still said the rules should be changed.
"There's no reason why the student union should be used as the bonus location when it could easily be an already-set location," said Jose Miranda, 21, a senior at the university.