After ‘Laughingstock’ 2018 Election, Florida Voting Reform Bill Emerges

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Notoriously close "swing state" elections have fostered lawsuits that find hair-splitting vagaries in state law and, as a result, Florida’s highly publicized ballot counts and recounts have devolved into "a laughingstock" on the national stage.

At least four Senate bills and two House proposals offer recommendations to address perceived flaws in the state’s election process.

The House State Affairs Committee last week unanimously approved its own legislation, PCB SAC 19-01, which incorporates many aspects of the other efforts into one comprehensive bill.

PCB SAC 19-01, spearheaded by Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, a former GOP state party chairman, primarily tackles concerns about vote-by-mail (VBM) and provisional ballots raised during the 2018 midterm elections.

PCB SAC 19-01 would allow county elections supervisors to mail domestic VBM ballots earlier, up to 40 days before an election. Currently under state law, the earliest they can be mailed is 35 days prior to an election.

"We will have 40 days to vote if this bill passes," Ingoglia said. "That is a long, long time."

The proposed measure also moves up the deadline for when those VBM ballots must be received to 10 days before an election rather than the six allowed under current law. It requires supervisors to mail VBM ballots out no later than eight days prior to Election Day, doubling the current four-day deadline.

PCB SAC 19-01 also extends the deadline for voters to "cure" their signatures on VBM ballots if there is a challenge. The "cure" deadline would be extended from 5 p.m. the day before the election until 5 p.m. on the second day after the election.

Under the proposed bill, the 2020 primary election would be held on Aug. 18, a week earlier than currently planned. It would also allow voters to take selfies of their ballots.

The proposed House measure also addresses issues that surfaced in Broward and Palm Beach counties, and elsewhere, leading to exhaustive recounts and speculation about political machinations that, ultimately, proved to be more attributable to poor ballot design and malfunctioning vote-counting machines.

Poor ballot design was particularly evident in Broward County where some ballots placed the U.S. Senate race between three-term incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson and term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Scott on the bottom left-corner under the instructions, making it easy for voters to miss it.

The bad placement may have cost Nelson several thousand votes in an election he lost by about 10,000 votes.

The proposal "requires all ballot instructions either to be horizontal across the top or vertical along the side, but only if there are no individual races on the side below the instructions," Ingoglia said.

"At the end of the day, we have to do something, right?" said Rep. Bobby Dubose, D-Fort Lauderdale. "We need to make sure we take into account all things that are a potential variable to make our election process the best process it can be."

DuBose said the proposed changes appear above-board but cautioned Ingoglia that he would "keep a watchful eye" on the bill as it moves forward.

Ingoglia said the proposed measure would also bring greater transparency over local canvassing boards, which would need to provide better notification of when they meet.

He said the bill will eventually include new ballot security rules, including mandates that would keep a tighter watch on ballot transportation and requiring all ballots to be in locked rooms when not being canvassed.

"The 2018 election one again, and unfortunately, placed Florida in a national spotlight," Ingoglia said, calling the state’s election follies "a laughingstock."

"While most of our elections officials and poll workers did an outstanding job following the law, others struggled to do so and in some circumstances, failed all together," he said, noting the reforms are needed – and needed quickly – with an anticipated high turnout in the 2020 election cycle, which will include President Donald Trump’s re-election bid, drawing closer every day.