Our Opinion: Early-voting law needs revising

Oct 26, 2008


Tallahassee Democrat

With record turnouts and long lines at many early-voting sites around the state, Florida is getting its first crucial test of a 2005 elections law that took effect two years ago.

If House Bill 1567 were undergoing a performance review, we would be obligated to check the box that says "needs improvement."

The 2005 law, which was designed to establish uniform statewide standards for early voting, has had the effect of reducing access to the democratic process precisely the opposite of what the state should be encouraging.

The law limits the number of early polling sites and the number of hours in which they can operate. Voters in several counties have had to wait in line for hours. One news report quoted a Fort Lauderdale woman as saying she'd waited four and a half hours.

For historic elections such as this one, citizens who don't vote by mail must reasonably expect to wait. Going to the polls, after all, is not the same as patronizing a fast-food restaurant.

But the wait should not be so long as to suppress turnout, and HB 1567 is having that impact, although it's impossible to determine to what extent.

One Internet blogger last week described standing in line for more than two and a half hours near an expectant mother whose due date was just a week away and wanted to vote before the baby arrived. The blogger said voters didn't complain despite the long wait.

"The entire time I stood in line," the Florida blogger wrote, "I didn't see one person abandon ship."

That's encouraging, but there is no way to know how many potential early voters are just driving past polling sites without stopping when they see long lines stretching out of the building and moving at a snail's pace.

This was a partisan issue during debate three years ago, and it still is. But voter access shouldn't be about partisan politics.

"Democracy without citizen involvement is easier, but it's not democracy," House Minority Leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said at the time. "This isn't Iraq. We should be able to vote in a convenient manner right now."

Before the law took effect in 2006, county elections supervisors had more leeway. Early-voting sites were permitted to stay open for up to 12 hours on weekdays; now they are restricted to eight hours on weekdays. That makes it harder to vote early for working people, especially if they work long hours or hold more than one job.

Early voting on weekends is limited to eight aggregate hours over two days, to be divided as local supervisors see fit. For example, a supervisor in one county could open early-voting centers for eight hours one weekend day and not at all the other day. Another supervisor might open sites in his or her county for four hours on each weekend day. Before 2006, Leon County early voting sites were open for eight hours on both weekend days.

In addition, early polling sites are limited to public buildings such as supervisors' offices, libraries and city halls, a restriction that Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho called "onerous" with the effect of "denying service."

It's important to ensure that the voting process is safe and secure, and that there is a reasonable measure of uniformity across the state. But the rules should not be so rigid as to dampen participation among the citizens the process is supposed to serve.

We can only hope that wasn't HB 1567's intent, even if it's the law's effect.

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