Can I Get a Witness? Proposed Florida Absentee Rule Riles Election Officials

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[Image courtesy of classic.motown]

In 1963, Motown legend Marvin Gaye had a hit with the song “Can I Get a Witness?”

Florida absentee voters may have to start asking the same question if a new requirement, which passed on a party-line vote in a state Senate committee yesterday, becomes law. Steve Bousquet of the Tampa Bay Times has the details:

The Senate Rules Committee approved an elections bill Tuesday on a 10-5 party-line vote, setting the stage for floor action on one of the major pieces of legislation in the 2013 session …

The Senate bill’s most controversial provision remains a requirement that any voter who casts an absentee ballot has to get another adult to witness the voter’s signature. “That is just a recipe for disaster,” said Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley. His sentiments were echoed at Tuesday’s Senate hearing by elections chief Paul Lux in Okaloosa County, where, he predicted, the ballots of many military personnel would be rejected.

“There’s no tangible benefit to the voter, and this provision will result in more ballots being not counted for our military members,” Lux testified.

[Senate Elections Chair Jack] Latvala said the requirement that an absentee ballot be witnessed was the law for decades, but the Legislature repealed it in 2004. A recent Miami-Dade County grand jury recommended that it be reinstated as a check against voter fraud, and Latvala said Miami-Dade State Attorney Kathy Fernandez Rundle has lobbied in support of it.

But election supervisors predict that a lot of absentee ballots will be discarded because voters will overlook the witness requirement. The witness provision is not in the House elections bill, and Corley said he was “confident” that the Senate would eventually eliminate it from the bill before the end of the session.

Eliminating witness requirements has been a priority of groups interested in improving the voting process for Americans serving in the military or living and working overseas. A Pew Charitable Trusts report from January 2012 found that all but four states had eliminated witness requirements for military and overseas voters.

This issue is the classic conflict between competing concerns – namely, improving the security of the voting process (no doubt highlighted by the recent absentee voting “cyberattack” on Miami-Dade) versus easing access to the ballot for voters, especially those in the military and overseas.

It’s yet another emerging conflict in Tallahassee over a reform bill whose bipartisan credentials get murkier every day.

Stay tuned.

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