Leg­is­la­tors should make elec­tions as fair as they (hope­fully) are safe

Orlando Sentinel - - OPINION -

When it comes to elec­tions, state law­mak­ers have three main re­spon­si­bil­i­ties: Make sure the vot­ing is se­cure, ac­ces­si­ble and fair.

As we look to­ward the 2020 elec­tions, and the leg­isla­tive ses­sion that be­gins next month, Florida ap­pears to be mak­ing de­cent progress on the first point. Not so much on the se­cond two.

We’ve seen signs that the state is work­ing dili­gently to pre­vent se­cu­rity breaches that haunted re­cent elec­tions. A brief word to law­mak­ers, how­ever…this is no time to get cheap. If the gover­nor needs money for elec­tion se­cu­rity, give it to him.

Un­for­tu­nately, while the state is gain­ing ground in mak­ing sure the bal­lots are counted, it needs to place an equal em­pha­sis on mak­ing sure bal­lots are cast.

But the vot­ing road­blocks law­mak­ers cre­ated ear­lier this year seem likely to stay in place, and the con­fu­sion they’re caus­ing might not be cleared up un­til af­ter the Novem­ber elec­tion.

If we didn’t know bet­ter, we’d say that’s what the GOP-dom­i­nated leg­is­la­ture has in mind.

“It’s hard not to be cyn­i­cal,” said Pa­tri­cia Brigham, pres­i­dent of the Florida League of Women Vot­ers.

It’s hard not to be baf­fled if you’re an ex-felon.

It’s been 13 months since Florid­i­ans over­whelm­ingly ap­proved Amend­ment 4, which re­stored many ex-felons’ vot­ing rights. The amend­ment said felons must com­plete “all terms of ser­vice.”

That was need­lessly am­bigu­ous, but most of the 5.1 mil­lion peo­ple who voted for the amend­ment very likely un­der­stood it to mean “com­pleted their jail sen­tences and pro­ba­tion.”

Repub­li­can law­mak­ers, never keen on the idea of adding 1.4 mil­lion Demo­crat­i­clean­ing vot­ers, un­der­stood it to mean, “Hey, look, a loop­hole!”

They said ex-felons must pay all court fees, fines and other fi­nan­cial obli­ga­tions be­fore they can vote. Those stip­u­la­tions be­came part of the sweep­ing elec­tion law Gov. Ron DeSan­tis signed ear­lier this year.

Vot­ing rights groups filed le­gal chal­lenges, and U.S. District Judge Robert Hin­kle ruled for the ex-felons in a pre­lim­i­nary in­junc­tion. Leg­is­la­tors said they’d ad­just the bill, but those tweaks are un­likely to change the resti­tu­tion re­quire­ments.

“I don’t think it will be wholly dif­fer­ent than our cur­rent po­si­tion,” said Sen. Jeff Bran­des (R-Tampa).

That as­sures the dis­pute will linger be­yond the March pri­maries. With ap­peals, it may not be re­solved be­fore the Novem­ber gen­eral elec­tion.

If it’s still in le­gal limbo then, what hap­pens?

“We will fol­low the law,” said Semi­nole County Su­per­vi­sor of Elec­tions Chris An­der­son. “What­ever the law is at that time.”

What if courts even­tu­ally rule in the state’s fa­vor, but felons are al­lowed to vote while the case is un­der ap­peal? Talk about a fi­asco.

Adding to the con­fu­sion: Florida pro­vided no data­base for ex-felons to de­ter­mine if they’ve paid all fi­nan­cial obli­ga­tions.

And in the lat­est twist, the gover­nor’s of­fice claimed in a Dec. 3 hear­ing that if Hin­kle’s in­junc­tion or­ders are up­held, it would void Amend­ment 4 in its en­tirety. That prompted a lec­ture from Hin­kle.

“What you can’t do is to run out the clock so that peo­ple who are el­i­gi­ble to vote don’t get to vote in the March pri­mary or, more im­por­tantly, in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion,” he told DeSan­tis’s le­gal team.

The clock is also tick­ing for an­other group of vot­ers. Af­ter years of re­sis­tance, courts forced the state to al­low early vot­ing on col­lege cam­puses in 2018.

About 60,000 peo­ple cast bal­lots. Given the lib­eral lean­ings of many col­lege stu­dents, the leg­is­la­ture added a cocka­mamie pro­vi­sion to the new elec­tion law.

It re­quires “suf­fi­cient non-per­mit­ted park­ing” at early vot­ing sites. Leg­is­la­tors know on most col­lege cam­puses, a non­per­mit­ted park­ing spot is harder to find than a con­ser­va­tive pro­fes­sor.

“It’s never been about park­ing,” Brigham said. “This is about the con­sti­tu­tional right to vote early.”

The Florida League of Women Vot­ers is chal­leng­ing the law, but Brigham does not know if the courts will rule be­fore 2020’s elec­tion days.

So to recap, the state is send­ing col­lege stu­dents off cam­pus if they want to vote, it’s re­quir­ing fi­nan­cial doc­u­men­ta­tion that of­ten doesn’t ex­ist, and it’s turned a syn­tax dis­crep­ancy into a po­lit­i­cal sledge­ham­mer. It’s hard not to be cyn­i­cal.

If you’re lucky enough to vote, at least your bal­lot (fingers crossed) should be se­cure. Rus­sia ac­cessed vot­ing data­bases in two Florida coun­ties in 2016, a breach the FBI kept se­cret for two years.

State of­fi­cials had to sign non-dis­clo­sure agree­ments. The lack of trans­parency is trou­bling, but the state has cre­ated cy­ber­se­cu­rity part­ner­ship be­tween coun­ties and taken other steps to pro­tect the elec­tion.

The sys­tem with­stood scru­tiny of three statewide re­counts in 2018. The ul­ti­mate safe­guard, of­fi­cials say, is hack­ers can’t al­ter Florida’s paper bal­lots.

“That mark put on paper can’t change,” said Orange County Su­per­vi­sor of Elec­tions Bill Cowles.

If only ev­ery­body el­i­gi­ble to make a mark could do so. In­stead, Elec­tion 2020 looks like a le­gal quag­mire de­signed to shape the out­come.

Note to leg­is­la­ture: Free and fair elec­tions are the foun­da­tion of our democ­racy. It’s dis­turb­ing when the threats to that idea come from within and with­out.

CARLINE JEAN/SUN SEN­TINEL

Elec­tions must be se­cure and fair. Af­ter for­eign cy­ber in­cur­sions in 2016, se­cu­rity has been tight­ened in Florida's elec­tion sys­tem. But the Florida Leg­is­la­ture needs to rec­tify vot­ing hur­dles with Amend­ment 4 and other is­sues to as­sure the 2020 elec­tion is fair.

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