OrlandoSentinel.com Aaron Deslatte April, 27 2011
TALLAHASSEE – Senate leaders plan to amend a controversial elections bill to shrink Florida’s 14-day window for early voting to eight days but allow most counties the option of keeping the polls open longer hours.
Early voting locations would have to stay open 12 hours over the eight days in Florida’s two most populated counties, Miami-Dade and Broward, under language being written by Secretary of State Kurt Browning’s office.
All other county election supervisors would have the “flexibility” to keep their early voting sites open 12 hours daily over the eight-day period. Current law allows a 14-day early voting window, with polls allowed to be open only eight hours daily and a maximum of eight hours over the weekends — so, allowing the sites to stay open 12 hours over eight days would give supervisors and voters the same 96 hours to cast and process ballots.
“The expansion to 12 hours is going to make it a lot easier for working families, and particularly in my area, for military families,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, whose Panhandle district includes Crestview, a bedroom community with many employees who commute to Eglin Air Force base.
Gaetz said he had an agreement with Democratic Sens. Gwen Margolis of Miami and Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale to co-sponsor the amendment when the elections bill reaches the Senate floor.
The elections bill, SB 2086, would overhaul Florida’s elections process by making it harder for people who have changed their address to cast regular ballots at the polls, placing new requirements on voter-registration groups, and cutting Florida’s 14-day early voting period in half.
A similar elections bill has already cleared the House.
Democrats and elections groups have called the measure an attempt to disenfranchise younger and poorer voters who flocked to vote early in the 2008 presidential election.
And Browning — who served for nearly four years as former Gov. Charlie Crist’s chief elections administrator and returned to the job under Gov. Rick Scott – said he shared the concerns of election supervisors that condensing the period for early voting could lead to longer lines in next year’s presidential contest.
“Based on the ‘08 turnout, it appears to be problematic to me,” Browning said on Wednesday. “Because if that turnout repeats itself in 2012, when you have fewer hours, you’re literally funneling a larger amount of people into a smaller amount of time.”
Since early voting began in Florida in 2004, there’s been no evidence it actually increased voter turnout, although it has definitely proven a popular convenience for voters. In the 2008 presidential election, 2.1 million Floridians voted early.
Last year, Republicans actually won the early voting turnout battle for the first time.
“I’ve always looked at it like a pressure valve,” Browning said. “If we had not had early voting in 2008, I would not have been standing up there on that Wednesday morning, crowing that we had a great election yesterday.”