On May 21st, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida signed into law CS/HB 7103. The bill includes changes to absentee voting laws, to requirements for the quality of voting technology, to the word limits of constitutional amendments, and to many other areas of election administration that are both visible and invisible to the voting public.
At EVIC, we are following the changes made to early voting. Some view HB 7103 as a victory for early voting advocates and a defeat for Republicans (try this article, or this one, or this one), because HB 7103 is considered a redaction of HB 1355, a controversial piece of legislation that some argue caused over 200,000 to not vote in 2012 and created 6-9 hour lines for those who stuck around. Michael C. Herron and Daniel A. Smith claim that Democratic, African American, Hispanic, young, and first-time voters were disproportionally impacted by the HB 1355. Other survey results don’t speak directly to the impact on minority groups, but do show that lines in Florida were longer than anywhere else in the country.
Will HB 7103 make things better? Why did 13 Democrats in the Florida State Senate oppose the bill? The devil is in the details, and these details may derail the hopes of early voting advocates (here is a PDF of the HB 7103).
Let’s start with section 13 (pg. 24-26 of the PDF)–where we find the most significant changes to early voting:
“The supervisor [of elections] may also designate any city hall, permanent public library facility, fairground, civic center, courthouse, county commission building, stadium, convention center, government-owned senior center, or government-owned community center as early voting sites” (lines 681-686)
“a supervisor may designate one early voting site per election in an area of the county that does not have any of the eligible early voting locations” (689-691)
“Each county shall, at a minimum, operate the same total number of early voting sites for a general election which the county operated for the 2012 general election” (694-697)
“Early voting shall begin on the 10th day before an election that contains state or federal races and end on the 3rd day before the election, and shall be provided for no less than 8 hours and no more than 12 hours per day at each site during the applicable period” (700-704)
“In addition, early voting may be offered at the discretion of the supervisor of elections on the 15th, 14th, 13th, 12th, 11th, or 2nd day before an election that contains state or federal races for at least 8 hours per day, but not more than 12 hours per day” (704-708)
The first provision means that there will may be greater use of satellite early voting locations, and as Bob Stein has shown, this would increase the use of early voting and voter turnout overall. An increase in the minimum number of early voting hours per day could make it easier to vote early for some citizens. Discretionary authority to offer early voting on additional days returns the state to the situation prior to HB1355.
However, discretionary authority is not mandated requirements. Only time will tell if county supervisors will take advantage of the ability to offer early voting for more days and at more places. The bill contains no additional funding for local officials, so how likely is it that counties will pay for early voting out of their own budgets? It’s possible that early voting could be very accessible in wealthy counties and relatively inaccessible in poorer counties, creating the same kind of racial and ethnic disparities Herron and Smith point to in 2012.
Is this the only change to early voting in Florida? There is one more provision that caught our eye. From section 19 of 7103:
“The supervisor of elections shall upload into the county’s election management system by 7 p.m. on the day before the election the results of all early voting and absentee ballots that have been canvassed and tabulated by the end of the early voting period. Pursuant to ss. 101.5614(9), 101.657, and 101.68(2), the tabulation of votes cast or the results of such uploads may not be made public before the close of the polls on election day” (1100-1107)
If we are reading this correctly, this is a major change in Florida election law, and early in-person and absentee ballot returns are not going to be made available for public scrutiny until after the election. If this is an accurate reading, vote mobilization efforts in Florida will be substantially harmed, since campaigns will no longer be able to track who has already returned their ballots. It may be that we are misreading the intent of the term “tabulation” which refers to actual candidate totals and not information on voter turnout. We look forward to hearing that we have misinterpreted this provision.
CORRECTION: We are very pleased to learn that Section 19 of 7103 does not impact election reporting. A state election official from Florida has let us know that the provision instead requires supervisors of elections to internally upload early voting decisions prior to Election Day. Glad to hear about the correction!