GOP's law created long voting lines

Oct 24, 2008

Steve Bousquet

St Pete Times


The pictures of early voters on TV look like crowds waiting to ride Space Mountain.

Hour after hour, people stand in line for the "convenience" of early voting. The National Campaign for Fair Elections says a three-hour wait is a big problem, but Secretary of State Kurt Browning says it's a sign of a healthy democracy.

In frustration, some voters fault election supervisors for too few sites or machines. But there's a bigger culprit the Legislature.

Three years ago, legislators passed a huge elections bill (HB 1567). Some changes were voter-friendly, such as allowing anyone to request an absentee ballot without having to give a reason why.

The bill also limited early voting to eight hours a day, and to no more than eight hours on a weekend. That did away with 12-hour early voting sessions for people who work long hours.

The law also limited early voting sites to elections offices, libraries and city halls even though elections officials wanted to use other sites.

Democratic legislators voted against the bill and suspected the shorter hours were a Republican plot to suppress the Democratic turnout.

"Not true," the sponsor, Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, said Friday. "The whole purpose behind it was to have uniformity."

Every GOP lawmaker from Tampa Bay voted for the bill, including some on the Nov. 4 ballot: Sens. Mike Fasano and Charlie Dean and Reps. Faye Culp and John Legg, to name a few. Every Democrat in the bay area voted against it.

Now, as his constituents stand in line for hours to vote, Rep. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat, says the early voting change was no accident.

"They did it on purpose," Gelber said. "This was a rank antidemocracy power grab."

All nine Democrats in the state's congressional delegation sent Browning a letter, urging him to expand early voting hours next week and to require the early voting sites to be open Sunday. Browning says he has no plans "at this time" to do so, and it is not clear that he has that power.

As of Thursday, 609,000 people voted early. Democrats had a big lead, further evidence that Democrats are more likely to vote early while Republicans tend to request absentee ballots more.

In a conference call between Browning and county elections officials Friday, Lee County Supervisor Sharon Harrington said the Legislature should allow more sites.

Guess who lives in Lee County? Reagan's parents. He said they have delayed voting early because of long lines.

"We're still making it easier to vote than it was 20 years ago," Reagan said, "but if we can continue to improve it, we should."

Florida has something called the "early voting wait time clock." Supervisors in Miami-Dade and Broward now list expected wait times on their Web sites.

In Broward, home of the longest ballot and the most Democrats of any county in Florida, the wait was four hours at Miramar City Hall on Friday.

Browning wants more counties to use it. "That is an innovative idea," he said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.





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