By Jim Bleyer
When Floridians vote this fall, they will enjoy the most far-reaching ballot access in the state’s history, one of the country’s most experienced and high-profile election officials affirmed this week.
Ion Sancho, who is retiring this year after serving seven terms as Leon County Supervisor of Elections, played a key role in advocating a series of reforms that puts Florida in the top tier of voter-friendly states. The new procedures, fought for by the Florida Association of Elections Supervisors, were approved by the Legislature subsequent to voter suppression attempts in 2012.
The biggest beneficiaries of expanded hours will be urban voters, especially blacks and Hispanics. That translates to a significant boost for the Democratic party that has seen its registration advantage erode for nearly a decade. In 2008, Democrats comprised 42 percent of all voters and had a plurality of more than 650,000 voters over Republicans with 36 percent of the registrants. As of June 1, Democratic registration stood at 38 percent and had only 260,000 more voters than the Republican party with 35.8 percent.
Considered a “purple” state, Florida and its 29 electoral votes are coveted by both parties. In a close election, winning them provides the crucial path to victory. With augmented voter access, the Hillary Clinton camp must be smiling.
Florida’s outlook for a smooth, clean 2016 election pivots on the belief that giving local elections supervisors increased autonomy will result in a more accurate and inclusive voting process. Urban counties and rural counties are now able to satisfy the particular needs of their respective constituencies. The reforms:
Although picture identification is still required at the polls, the issuing entity can include the U.S. Passport Bureau, Drivers License Bureau, U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a neighborhood association, retirement center, public assistance program, high school or college, and bank. Employee identification cards issued by the Federal government, the State of Florida, county governments or more municipalities are also recognized.
The Legislature mandated early voting for the general election must start on October 29 although local supervisors can call for voting as early as October 24. Voting must end by November 6 with supervisors having the option of ending it November 5. Sunday voting, previously banned, is permitted.
Each elections supervisor can set early polling hours to accommodate different populations. In Sancho’s Leon County, for example, precincts in downtown Tallahassee will be open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. while the rest of the county will have 10 a.m.-6 p.m. availability.
Every county has a “wild card” site that can be designated for an underserved population. This was brought about when the city of Gainesville — which is heavily Democratic — asked if it could use the University of Florida student union for early voting in 2014 municipal elections. The state Division of Elections, which is run by Republican Governor Rick Scott’s appointee, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, said no.
“Florida now has fewer impediments to citizen voting than almost any other state,” said Sancho. “Early voting is a vehicle for providing equal access to all geographical areas of a county.”
Every Florida county uses optical scan voting machines, considered the gold standard for accuracy. Sancho, who has no party affiliation, credits former Gov. Charlie Crist with forcing the Legislature to make it a requirement. The machines are also hackproof since they are not connected to the Internet.
Sancho scoffed at the theory that false IDs can impact elections. An individual that has a false ID can maybe vote one time, Sancho said, and there’s no evidence of in-person fraudulent voting ever changing an election in the history of the United States. Voting by mail is a different story, he explained, because with no election official around, a voter may be intimidated or individuals may be casting ballots on behalf of relatives.
There’s still room for improvement. Sancho says the Legislature should provide for a pre-certification audit. Audits “are not worth the paper they’re written on,” he said, as they are conducted days after elections are certified.
More help from the federal and state governments is also needed, especially in the realm of voter education, Sancho observed, adding that the Help America Vote Act was never fully funded.