Florida bills aim to expand voting rights of military members away from home

Americans in uniform who are putting the most at risk to defend the country might have the least say in how the home front is governed under current election law.

Two bills, SB 486 filed Monday by Florida state Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, and HB 215 filed earlier by state Rep. Doug Broxson, R-Midway, are aiming to change that.

militaryballots1209newThe bills would enable Florida election supervisors to count the absentee votes of members of the military on non-candidate elections, such as ballot initiatives, constitutional amendment proposals and judicial retention.

The bills are part of a natural evolution to “fully enfranchise” members of the military who are serving away from home, said Okaloosa County Elections Supervisor Paul Lux.

Before 2010, members of the military using federal absentee ballots were restricted to voting in federal elections: president, Senate, and House of Representatives.

In 2010, the federal absentee ballot was expanded to include a spot where voters could write in local races that included candidates – such as county commission races. Now, the federal ballot includes wording to allow  “initiative votes.”

However, Florida election law will have to be updated to allow local elections supervisors to tabulate those absentee votes by transferring them to an optical scan sheet to be run through a voting machine.

Lux said the update became more necessary as absentee ballots started  going out by email in 2006, which gave members of the military a wider view of who and what was on the ballot back home. That greater knowledge led to greater willingness to participate in local elections, he said, which spurred the 2010 change. The proposed change, which would take effect July 1, 2014, is part of a natural evolution for military ballots.

“If they’re willing to go to the trouble to find out what’s on a local election ballot” the vote should be counted, Lux said.

“It isn’t that I have massive numbers of people trying to vote on constitutional amendments, but those who take the time to vote on it should have their votes counted,” he said.

Unless the law is updated that can’t happen.

If the bills become law, they would apply statewide, but in practice, Lux said, their effects would be limited to counties with large military presences, such as Okaloosa, Hillsborough and Duval. The administrative time to transfer the votes from absentee to optical scan ballots, and the costs to county supervisors of elections, would likely be negligible, he said.

Dave Murzin, a former state representative and Capitol veteran who is now an Evers legislative aide, called the bills “entirely do-able.” But given that it’s Florida, and it involves election law, he said, anything is possible.

“It’s always a dicey topic,” he said.

But voting access for members of the military is always worth pushing for, he said.

“We have people in the Panhandle who think military ballots are very important,” he said. “They’re fighting for our rights, we need to fight for theirs.”


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