• Florida bill aims to cure balloting woes, streamline counts

    By: ELLIS RUA, Associated Press

    Updated:
    MIAMI (AP) - Florida lawmakers are considering several measures to address the state's long documented election woes.

    Problems with ballot counting - from the controversial 2000 presidential election to the 2018 statewide election - prompted Spring Hill Republican Rep. Blaise Ingoglia and two House committees to draft a bill to streamline the absentee balloting schedule.

    One bill aims to streamline the absentee balloting schedule and require more training for verifying ballot signatures.

    The bill would extend the period that absentee ballots can be requested from 35 days ahead of the election to 40 days. It also would move up the deadline for requesting such ballots from 6 days ahead of the election to 10 days. Elections officials would have until eight days before the election to mail out the ballots.

    The deadline for returning the ballots would remain the same - they must arrive by mail by 7 p.m. on Election Day. However, the legislation also would call for additional drop-off facilities for voters to bring ballots in person.

    Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux said Ingoglia's bill addresses concerns that people continually miss the deadline for mailing ballots back.

    "The postal service has been telling us: 'You need to mail your stuff sooner,'" Lux said. "They cannot guarantee first class delivery any sooner than five days."

    Although voters requested more than 3.4 million mail-in ballots during the 2018 general election, nearly 850,000 were not returned, according to state data. More than 6,600 ballots that were mailed ahead of the election in 65 counties were not counted because they were not received by Election Day, according to the Department of State.

    Despite seeming advantages to voters, Democratic Party of Florida said the bill was tantamount to "voter suppression" because it would confuse voters and represent "a significant disruption in how Floridians vote by mail in the critical days before an election."

    Still, the bill received bipartisan support from Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, comprised of election supervisors from the state's 67 counties.

    To decrease the workload at the tail end of an election, the bill allows for starting the count of mail-in votes one week earlier than in current law, in which it can start no sooner than 15 days prior to an election.

    "Getting towards an election you see a bottleneck," Ingoglia said. "There's no reason not to start canvassing those ballots earlier and getting those ballots knocked out."

    Lux said he does not believe an election would be compromised by word leaking out of what candidate held a lead, because the vote's integrity already is protected by law. Releasing results prior to the closing of polls is a third-degree felony.

    Brenda Snipes, who received harsh criticism from Republican politicians for her handling of the recount in Broward County and who later resigned as elections supervisor, said the bill would benefit heavily populated counties that receive large amounts of mail-in ballots.

    One of the motivating factors for the legislation was the chaotic 2018 election, when the governor and U.S. Senate races were too close to call and prompted recounts.

    Federal lawsuits mounted as officials raced to count and recount ballots by mandated deadlines while dealing with faulty machines, in some cases, and with allegations that ballots were mishandled. President Donald Trump suggested in tweets that Democrats were stealing the election. Protesters alleged fraud and massed at vote-counting centers in South Florida.

    Eventually, Republicans Rick Scott in the Senate race and Ron DeSantis in the governor's race were declared winners, and police said there were no allegations of electoral wrongdoing.

    Criticism and lawsuits in 2018 that focused heavily on the Broward operation, where post-election vote-counting dragged on longer than in most counties, and on Palm Beach County, which suffered breakdowns to outdated machines. That drew comparisons to the unruly 2000 election when lawyers for Republican George Bush and Democrat Al Gore squared off in high-stakes challenges over Florida balloting.

    Ingoglia's bill also calls for mandatory training in signature verification among election staff and requires election supervisors to immediately contact voters if a problem with a signature is discovered.

    Dr. Daniel A. Smith, a University of Florida political scientist who specializes in voting rights and elections, said the signature training mirrors what several other states have as uniform standards.

    "To have 67 different standards on how an absentee ballot is going to be verified by the supervisor and the canvassing board is a recipe for disaster," Smith said.

    Liza McClenaghan of government watchdog group Common Cause Florida said lawmakers should mandate what are called risk-limiting audits prior to the certification of election results.

    These audits - already implemented in Rhode Island, Virginia and Colorado - require poll workers to manually spot-check portions of the ballot and audit trail, and use statistical analysis to detect anomalies in the vote tally.

    "This gives more confidence to the election process as observed by the voters," McClenaghan said.

    Current Florida law requires an audit only after the certification of election results.

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