Election reform bipartisan no more

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The bipartisan consensus on overhauling Florida’s elections laws shattered Monday, as the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee passed the main reform proposal on a party-line vote after swatting down a series of amendments, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

It was the first time any version of the measure (SB 600) has not received unanimous or near-unanimous support, and marked a striking change for a committee that had so far handled the issues before it on a largely bipartisan basis.

The 15 Democratic amendments — several of which were withdrawn, but many of which were defeated on party-line votes — helped spark the friction. Democrats had long signaled to the GOP majority that they considered the legislation inadequate.

Nonetheless, Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who chairs the committee, was visibly angered by the amendments. At one point, during a debate on how many ballot summaries for legislatively-sponsored constitutional amendments should face a 75-word limit, he underscored that similar legislation had passed the House with a single dissenting vote — from a Republican.

“A hundred and 18 members of the House, including every single Democrat member of the House, voted for that bill and that language,” Latvala said. “And now we’re having to replay the fight today.”

Latvala stormed out of the committee room after the meeting and declined to speak to reporters — a rarity — saying he had somewhere else to be.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said after the meeting that Democrats wanted their concerns about the legislation addressed. 

“There were some really important amendments to the Democrats and we were hoping that we would get some concessions today,” she said.

When a reporter noted that every Democrat in the House supported the measure, she responded: “I don’t speak for them.”

Voting-rights organizations and House Democrats’ support for the legislation had always come with the caveat that they would like to see a more expansive bill. But Democrats on the Ethics and Elections Committee were the first to allow those concerns to prompt them to vote against the measure.

The Florida Democratic Party, which had earlier criticized the bill even as its members voted for it, blasted the measure again Monday.

“This half-hearted attempt by Republicans to address elections reforms is nothing short of shameful and comes at the expense of Floridian’s fundamental right to participate in the democratic process,” FDP Executive Director Scott Arceneaux said.

As it stands now, the legislation would take several steps to try to undo the long lines and voting snafus that once again shined an unfavorable spotlight on Florida’s elections process in November. It would give county supervisors the ability to offer as many as 14 days of early voting — though they could remain at the current eight. It would allow for more flexibility in selecting early voting sites.

But Democrats want to require 14 days of early voting or create a formula that would require more early voting in larger counties. Republicans have resisted those calls, saying supervisors should make the decision.

“What may work in Broward doesn’t necessarily work in Seminole,” said Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.

The bill would also limit the first version of ballot summaries on constitutional amendments proposed by the Legislature to 75 words, the same cap faced by citizen initiatives.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.