By BRANDON LARRABEE
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 5, 2013……The House passed an elections overhaul bill by an overwhelming margin Tuesday, tacitly admitting that lawmakers went too far in 2011 with a bill that had reduced early voting days and is now blamed for some of the snafus that plagued the 2012 elections.
House members voted 118-1 to approve the measure (HB 7013), which includes some of the least controversial changes to the state’s elections law. It would allow supervisors of elections to hold up to 14 days of early voting — virtually all of them currently offer eight days, but no more — and would increase the number of sites eligible to serve as early-voting locations.
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.
The bipartisan support for the measure was a striking change from the process in 2011 that led to the adoption of HB 1355, a bill that reduced early-voting days and made a raft of other controversial changes to elections law, some of which would remain in place even if the new measure passes.
After the vote, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, conceded that rolling back some of the changes in HB 1355 indicated that at least some parts of the measure were a mistake — though elections supervisors and others were also partially responsible for the nationally-mocked Election Day problems.
“I think the Legislature has some responsibility for some of the challenges we had in 2012,” Weatherford said. “I readily admit that, and that’s why we passed it on the first day.”
House members from both parties praised the bipartisan spirit of the voting legislation, even if Democrats wanted to push it further. Several said that the bill only resolves part of the problem — a “Voter Suppression Suppression Bill” in the words of some Democrats.
“We are not moving forward,” said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami. “If anything, we’re just getting back to the starting point to begin the discussion of, how do we make things right here in the state of Florida.”
Or, in the words of Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami: “This bill is not where I want it to be, but thank God it’s not where it used to be.”
Even though Democrats unanimously supported the measure — the only dissenting vote came from Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach — Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Scott Areceneaux flayed the measure in a statement.
“House Republicans today failed to pass serious and substantive elections reform with the passage of HB 7013,” Arceneaux said. “Rick Scott and the GOP are responsible for breaking Florida’s elections system with the passage of the voter suppression law and today’s vote shows their unwillingness to undo the damage they caused.”
But the prospects for additional changes are murky.
The Senate is already grappling with how to pass a bipartisan measure, given Democratic demands for even broader changes, and House Republicans indicated Tuesday that they were satisfied with what the new bill accomplishes.
“This bill goes a long way, Mr. Speaker, to solving many problems,” said Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater.