Sign of the Times: Florida Governor’s U-Turn on OVR

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[Image courtesy of nationofchange]

After months of debate in the state capitol and weeks of worrying in county election offices, Florida Governor Rick Scott has now signed legislation that will make the Sunshine State the latest to move toward online voter registration.

There are lots of interesting stories involved here – the strong endorsement of county election supervisors, the near-unanimity that support created in the legislature and the steadfast if somewhat vague opposition of the appointed Secretary of State – but the Gainesville Sun has a piece that very nicely summarizes how the winds of change nationally have affected the policy climate for elections in Florida:

In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott drew criticism for backing legislation that opponents said restricted the ability of Floridians to vote, including reducing the time that early voting would be allowed.

After the 2012 presidential election — when Florida again attracted national attention for voting problems, including long lines in some major counties and the inability to finish a final vote count along with the other states — Scott backed legislation that pulled back some of those 2011 changes and implemented other reforms.

On Friday, Scott went even further by signing legislation (SB 228) that would let Florida voters register online by 2017 — making Florida the 25th state that has online registration or is in the process of implementing it.

Florida’s experience on OVR is just the latest example of how the policy debate has shifted on election issues in recent years. At this time four years ago, the hot topic was voter ID and all the divisive partisan heat that brings. While ID legislation lives on in some legislatures – and clearly in many legislators’ hearts – OVR’s emergence as the new trend in legislatures is quite remarkable.

Some of this is the result of the steady support of OVR proponents, but I think the biggest factor in OVR’s emergence as a subject of “vehement agreement” nationally belongs to the Presidential Commission on Election Administration. The PCEA’s report went a long way toward legitimizing OVR as a topic worthy of bipartisan agreement, in part by pointing out to would-be partisan opponents that online registration can both expand the rolls with supportive voters AND achieve many if not all of the policy goals underlying voter ID.

Indeed, we’ve reached the point where OVR’s emergence is starting to spark new battles within parties instead of between them – like in Ohio, where the Secretary of State continues to beat the drum and is assembling a Florida-style coalition of county offices in support in order to overcome apparent opposition from his fellow Republicans in the Legislature.

In Florida, OVR supporters are celebrating final enactment of their bill – but now the real work of implementing the law in time for 2017 (which will almost certainly bring new fights) is just beginning. Still, it’s a significant development that signals a significant change on election policy nationwide.

Stay tuned!

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