Poor ballot design in Broward County. Inadequate voting machines in Palm Beach County. Problems statewide with tight recount deadlines and mismatched vote-by-mail signatures.
All of these issues and more are addressed in a bill that advanced in the Florida Senate Tuesday. The legislation seeks to ensure that problems identified during Florida’s 2018 election are not repeated.
The extraordinary midterm election resulted in three statewide recounts that exposed a series of flaws in how votes are tallied, bringing more embarrassment to a state with a long history of voting problems. It also resulted in court rulings invalidating aspects of Florida elections law.
“We have – cycle after cycle in this state – have issues and problems,” Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said Tuesday. “And it doesn’t mean you have to reinvent everything but it’s certainly a worthy exercise to look at improving things.”
Galvano said the Senate’s package of election reforms are “necessary” and “need to take place.” Elections experts agree. A representative for the Florida State Association of Supervisor of Elections said Tuesday that the organization would like to see changes, but supports the legislation.
“Barring all that… we are happy to support the bill as it’s currently written,” said FSASE President Paul Lux, a Republican who serves the Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections.
But it’s unclear whether the bill, which has 10 different “major” provisions according to an analysis by Senate staff, can pass the House, where leaders believe many of the problems that occurred in 2018 were the result of incompetence.
“A lot of what went wrong during the election already had laws that applied to it; we just had people that were not following the law,” House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said.
“I think some adjustments may be helpful but I don’t know that sweeping reform is necessary,” Oliva added.
Facing skepticism in the House regarding the need for major reforms, senators tried to play down the significance of the legislation that advanced through the chamber’s Ethics and Elections Committee Tuesday.
Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who chairs the elections committee, repeatedly described the legislation as a “glitch” bill that offers targeted fixes for a few specific problems, not a drastic overhaul.
“Truly the effort is to wind up with a glitch bill that just smooths things out and doesn’t create any kind of friction or open doors to perceived advantage of some group or another,” Baxley said. “To truly stay in the area of just tightening all the nuts and bolts and making it work better, that’s our objective.”
Among the changes in the bill:
- Requires county elections offices to put ballot instructions in a prescribed location. Many Broward County voters appeared to skip the U.S. Senate race between Rick Scott and Bill Nelson because of poor ballot design. Broward County’s 2018 ballot instructions ran the length of the left hand side of the ballot, with the U.S. Senate race placed beneath the instructions. That would not be possible under the proposed legislation.
- Outlaws vote-counting machines that can’t “simultaneously count and sort ballot overvotes and undervotes in multiple races.” The inadequacy of Palm Beach’s machines led to problems with the county’s recount.
- Pushes back the primary election so that it occurs 11 weeks before the general instead of 10 weeks to “provide more time for ballot cure and to redress possible glitches.”
- Extends the recount deadlines by a week. The tight deadlines stressed many elections offices and may have contributed to irregularities in the vote counts. Palm Beach missed the recount deadline. Hillsborough County did not submit recount results after the vote total did not match the original count. Sarasota County’s recount vote total also did not match the original count. Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner said the Senate elections bill has “several good proposals… that appear to address some important election deadline and timeline issues.”
- Gives voters whose absentee ballots are rejected for issues such as a mismatched signature more time to “cure” their ballots. The current cure deadline is 5 p.m. on the day before the election. The new deadline would be 11 days after the election. The bill also would require elections officials to make additional efforts to notify voters when their ballot is rejected. Nelson challenged the current state law on curing absentee ballots and was successful in court. The bill seeks to address some of the concerns raised in the court ruling, which was upheld on appeal.
The legislation advanced with unanimous support, although Democrats pushed back against the idea put forward by many elections officials and GOP leaders that the election went smoothly overall, and that state law just needs a few tweaks.
Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, said the legislation is not a major election reform package, but it still is substantial and the need for it shows how poorly the election went.
“I think that when your electoral system’s on the front page of every newspaper in the country for weeks there’s zero way we can claim that the election went well,” Rodriguez said.
Democrats would like to see further reforms. Rodriguez said the bill contains the “bare minimum” that needed to be changed after the 2018 election.
Whether the “bare minimum” will be too much for House GOP leaders remains to be seen. Lux said he believes the House will come around.
“I think we will not have trouble finding a companion for this” in the House, Lux said.