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Maybe there is a voter conspiracy

By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2002

TALLAHASSEE -- I have been loath to believe in the existence of a conspiracy to keep Floridians from voting. This state is famously prone to enough honest stupidity to explain everything. But it's getting harder to keep the faith.

TALLAHASSEE -- I have been loath to believe in the existence of a conspiracy to keep Floridians from voting. This state is famously prone to enough honest stupidity to explain everything. But it's getting harder to keep the faith.

What stirs my slumbering suspicions? It is the Republicans' curious obstinacy to a bill that would let people vote when they turn up at the wrong precincts.

Precinct confusion was one of the problems exposed by Florida's 2000 cliffhanger. The voting reform bill was drafted last spring to fix this with the use of provisional ballots. Voters who had been mistakenly left off the rolls or who went to wrong precincts would be issued provisional ballots. The ballots would be considered valid if they turned out be legal voters anywhere in the county, but only for the races on which they should have been voting. A wrong-district legislative vote would not count, but a vote for a countywide or statewide race such as sheriff, governor, senator or president would.

That's how the Senate passed it. But the House inexplicably approved provisional voting only for those who go to their legal precincts. In conference, the House won.

There will probably be a lot of people going to wrong precincts this year because of the necessity to redraw every legislative and congressional district. Many of the new lines will split precincts, forcing supervisors of elections to redraw them too and assign voters to new precincts or new polling places. Some voters won't get the word, or put it aside with the junk mail or fail to notice the legal ads that can suffice in lieu of letters.

Anticipating this, Rep. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, who served on the governor's voting reform task force, tried last week to get the House Elections Committee to approve countywide provisional ballots. The Republicans killed it on a straight party-line vote.

Their reason? It would encourage "convenience voting." People would vote where they wanted to, rather than where they should.

Hello? What's wrong with making it convenient to vote? That's what Americans want, isn't it? Or is someone afraid that fewer Republicans might win if voting becomes too convenient?

In Georgia, Secretary of State Cathy Cox has set a long-range goal of allowing people to vote anywhere in the state where it's convenient: at work, at school, wherever. That's particularly important to the greater Atlanta area, where many people spend hours commuting. Touch-screen technology easily lends itself to such convenience voting.

Many Florida counties are getting touch screens too, so convenience voting ought to be our goal as well. At the very least, we ought to be able to accommodate countywide provisional ballots.

Maybe there is a conspiracy. For the next clue, watch how the Senate Elections Committee votes on countywide provisional ballots.

* * *

Rep. Johnnie Byrd, who'll be the next House speaker, has an idea that sounds so good that you have to hope it really would be. Trouble is, good ideas usually have unintended consequences here. So I worry about his.

Byrd's proposal is to amend the Constitution to require that every bill be in its final form 48 hours before a final vote. This resembles the 72-hour "cooling-off" rule for appropriations bills, which would remain in effect.

Like that one, Byrd's is intended to prevent surprises ("snookers," they're called here) such as last session's infamous amendment to a health bill setting aside six medical school slots for service academy graduates like a lobbyist's son who had been turned down. Or the horrid "Boeing Amendment" that reappeared in the 1999 bill limiting lawsuits when most people thought it had been dropped.

Byrd concedes his proposal might just shift the funny stuff from the session's 60th day to the 58th, but at least legislators would have the chance to see and debate everything.

"I guess my main thought process is that there's nothing we should do that can't stand the light of day," he says.

Trouble is, the 72-hour rule hasn't stopped bad things from creeping into budget bills. What's worse, it has made it all but impossible to get them out. Any amendment, even a technical one, restarts the 72-hour clock. On day 57 or later, it forces an extension.

That's the dilemma in which Leon County's delegation found itself last year on learning that the Senate appropriations chairman had tied the county's road money to an ultimatum that it remove speed bumps from one of the roads to the airport. As no one else cared to extend the session to get that out, Leon's legislators had to rely on Gov. Jeb Bush to fix things later (as he did.)

To make Byrd's idea work as he intends, legislators would have to be willing to kill a bill to get at the snooker. Or to extend a session. Would they?

"I don't know," says Byrd. "We'll find out, won't we?"

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