Bipartisan voting bill proves elusive

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Senate leaders say they're working toward crafting a bipartisan bill to try to avoid polling snafus like those Florida faced in November, but a day before the session opening, there were signs of difficulty.

The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee held a two-hour meeting to try to hammer through differences on the bill (SB 600), with Chairman Jack Latvala saying he wanted to try to get the kind of unanimous support that the panel gave to an ethics measure expected to pass the Senate on Tuesday. But Latvala, R-Clearwater, also gave a pointed warning to minority Democrats on the panel.

"I'll be working to try to get there, but if we can't get there, I know how to do it the other way too," he said at the conclusion of the meeting.

Democrats, meanwhile, were laying down their own lines in the sand -- a seven-point plan that they said would serve as a minimum to what they could support. The list included undoing a controversial reduction in early voting days passed two years ago, continuing to allow in-person absentee voting across the state, expanding the number of early voting sites and limiting the number of words for ballot summaries on constitutional amendments proposed by the Legislature.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, made it clear that he believes the drive for a bipartisan bill gives his caucus leverage.

"I think we've got a good chance of getting those issues in," he said. "If we don't get them in, you're not going to get a bipartisan bill, and then they'll have to deal with the ramifications of 2014, and us again being the laughingstock of the nation."

But members from both sides dissented on a range of ideas floated by Latvala at Monday's meeting as he tries to find enough common ground to get a consensus on a substitute for his legislation.

Republicans balked at some changes while Democrats struggled with others. Support for and opposition to some ideas crossed party lines.

For example, Latvala is looking for a way to limit the number of local questions that can appear on a general election ballot -- something that local governments use to avoid the expense of holding their own election. He pointed out that Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, has filed a constitutional amendment allowing the Legislature to propose just three amendments a year.

"It would seem to me like if we're considering limiting what we can do in the state in terms of referendum issues, that the same type of thinking should be carried on down to the local level as well," Latvala said.

Clemens supported that comparison. But at least one Democrat, Sen. Darren Soto of Orlando, raised concerns about the idea, as did Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine.

"I'm just, on a personal basis, reluctant to restrict anybody's right to put something on the ballot," he said.

Geography could also play a role. During a discussion about absentee ballot recommendations that followed a grand jury investigation into an election in Miami-Dade County, Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, complained.

"I'm tired of all the restrictions that come about because of one county that does something that doesn't go by the books," she said.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, pointed out after being prompted by Latvala to respond that four other counties, including Broward County, had been underscored as problem areas by Secretary of State Ken Detzner.

The partisan nature of the fight, though, was sometimes highlighted on issues like early voting days -- where Republicans push for flexibility for supervisors to hold more, while Democrats want to make it mandatory -- and in-person absentee ballots, which clogged supervisors' offices through Election Day.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, joined Republicans in making the case for restrictions on voting at the supervisors' offices on Election Day instead of a voter going to his or her precinct.

"If you don't think it was a problem this last time, wait until the next election when everybody realizes that it's an option -- all the consultants and others that will potentially take advantage of it," said Gardiner, R-Orlando.

But Democrats hit a familiar refrain: That it shouldn't be difficult to cast a ballot in Florida.

"Our goal is to enable people to vote," Sobel said. "This is a democracy, and we want to make it as easy as possible."

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