Friday, March 10, 2017

Vote-by-mail reform legislation implements Judge Walker's order

Vote-by-mail fix ready for full House


THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 9, 2017.........A legislative fix to a state election law struck down in federal court was unanimously approved Thursday by the House Government Accountability Committee and now moves to the full House.

Under the bill (HB 105), a voter whose signature on a mail-in ballot doesn’t match the one on file with elections authorities could fill out an affidavit to fix the error.

A state law passed in 2004 allows voters to remedy a rejected mail-in ballot if they omit their signature, but not if their signatures are deemed not to match.

In October, a federal judge ruled in favor of Democratic plaintiffs who challenged the law ahead of last year's elections. In a blistering decision, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker called the law "indefensible" and apt to disenfranchise voters.

The court issued an injunction on behalf of the Florida Democratic Party and Democratic National Committee, ordering Secretary of State Ken Detzner to notify the state's 67 county elections supervisors to treat mismatched-signature voters the same as no-signature voters during the 2016 vote.

The measure approved by the House committee Thursday --- sponsored by House Minority Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa --- brings Florida law in line with Walker’s decision. It requires elections officials to make a good-faith effort to contact voters who cast rejected ballots before 5 p.m. on the day before the election, so the voters can submit an affidavit amending their ballot.

The measure leaves it up to the discretion of elections officials as to how to contact affected voters. It also says officials must allow a Florida driver's license or state identification card to be used to verify a mail-in ballot.

Rep. Neil Combee, R-Auburndale, said many voters --- especially elderly voters with arthritis, hand tremors, or other physical maladies --- often struggle to reproduce their original on-file signatures, sometimes submitted decades before.

"We struggled trying to determine what to do with ballots that obviously just did not match," said Combee, who twice sat on county canvassing boards responsible for verifying and counting ballots. "This gives people a chance to fix the problem if there is one."

Backers of the now-invalidated 2004 law that eliminated a ballot cure for mismatched signatures had argued the change was necessary to curtail voter fraud. Walker, appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida by President Barack Obama in 2012, dismissed that idea in his ruling last year.

"In fact, letting mismatched-signature voters cure their vote by proving their identity further prevents voter fraud --- it allows supervisors of elections to confirm the identity of that voter before their vote is counted," Walker wrote.

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