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Browning Proposing Tweaks to Voting Laws

by Keith Laing
The News Service of Florida

Secretary of State Kurt Browning said Tuesday that he will propose several modifications to state election law when the legislative session begins next week.

Speaking with reporters after a meeting with voter advocacy groups, Browning said that he would propose the Legislature allow overseas absentee ballots to be sent and received online. The secretary said he will also suggest permitting voters to change their addresses on Election Day in lieu of voting provisionally when challenged, as well as stiffening the legal penalties for unnecessary ballot challenges.

{sidebar id=1}Browning said that the regular postal service was an acceptable delivery method for in-state absentee ballots, but that requiring overseas ballots to be faxed back was "archaic."

Browning said allowing overseas absentee voters, who are primarily military personnel, to cast their ballots on the Internet would save up to two weeks, in addition to making voting more convenient for troops. Browning said the proposal was a result of the feedback he received when he toured the Middle East last year with colleagues from four other states trying to get out the military vote.

Browning and election officials from California, Indiana, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania took a swing through the region about a month before Election Day 2008.

"One of the things we found was that the fax machine was antiquated technology," Browning said Tuesday. "We can e-mail and fax ballots out, but they can only (currently) fax ballots back in. We found whether we were in Kuwait, whether we in Baghdad or Balad or Kabul or Bagram Air Force base, whether we were in Frankfurt, Germany, there at Ramstein, over and over again troops were telling us 'let us e-mail.'"

Browning also said his proposal to allow voters who have moved to change their address on Election Day and then vote at appropriate precincts would make voting more convenient. Doing so would drastically reduce concerns about challenges to the eligibility of voters who are facing home foreclosure, Browning said.

In the weeks leading up to the most recent election, Republicans in Florida and in other states were accused of planning to challenge the residency of voters at the polls who had recently lost their homes, though no such instances were reported after the election.

"The perceived big issue in ‘08 was...that everybody was going to challenge everybody that was going through foreclosure," Browning said. "We tried to calm people down, saying you shouldn't be challenged on foreclosure because you can still live in a home that's being foreclosed on."

However, Browning said it was illegal for voters who have moved to a new address to vote at the precinct for their old home, whether the move was caused by foreclosure or not. Browning said his new proposal would give foreclosed voters a choice of voting provisionally in their existing precincts if they still resided in their homes or changing their address to their place of residence and voting there if they have moved.

Either way, Browning said, their vote would ultimately be counted.

"Once that challenge is entered, then there is no other option than voting a provisional ballot," Browning said. Under the proposed change, if you are challenged because of an address change, Browning said, “what our proposal does is it gives you, the voter, the opportunity to change your address at the polls to the new address and go to the new precinct and vote a regular ballot."

{sidebar id=1}"Let's go on that assumption that it is not a frivolous challenge, and I say that I'm still living in my home that's going through foreclosure, yes I've got to vote a provisional ballot. But I'll tell you right now that it will count," Browning continued. "It's the same voter, it's the address and you're in the right precinct."

Browning said that another major proposal he will make to the Legislature is that the legal penalty for unnecessarily challenging voters be toughened from its current first degree misdemeanor to a third degree felony. That would increase the penalty for a frivolous challenge from up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine to up to 5 years in prison and $5,000 in fines.

But Browning said he would not specify what made an eligibility challenge frivolous.

"Who was it - the Supreme Court? - said something about pornography, I can't define it but I know it when I see it," Browning said. "I think the same thing would hold true with a frivolous challenge. If people are in there just saying 'I challenge you,' those in my opinion, we know that's frivolous. There's no basis, there's no ground, there's no nothing on those challenges."

Elizabeth Westfall, senior attorney for the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based racial justice advocacy group, said Browning's recommended changes to Florida voting law were positive developments, especially the recommended changes to eligibility challenges.

However, Westfall, who attended Browning's meeting with voter advocacy groups Tuesday, said that challenges should be restricted even further.

"Ordinary private citizens should not be in charge of maintaining voter rolls," Westfall said. "Supervisors of elections should be in charge of determining voters eligibility. The ability to challenge as a private citizen another voter's eligibility should be seriously limited."

Westfall said if voters had to have the ability to challenge other voters, she would suggest limiting it to those registered in the same precinct.

"That would further restrict challenges, which I think on the whole are not an appropriate way to maintain or scrub voter lists," Westfall said.

This article originally published on February 26, 2009.

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