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Bob Sparks: GOP should embrace and shape online voter registration

As the 2015 legislative session approaches, committees and sub-committees are pouring over hundreds of bills. Some of these bills are good ideas, while others are not so good. There is another category for bills that reflect a reasonable idea, but one whose time might be in the future.

The latter best describes House Bill 227 by Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee. The companion bill is Senate Bill 228 by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.

In this age of technology, Williams and Clemens wish to arm county supervisors of elections with the ability to register voters online. This concept has merit just for the fact it can raise efficiency and eliminate paper shuffling in the supervisors’ offices.

Twenty states currently use online voter registration facilitating millions of dollars in savings. The supervisors certainly think it is a good idea.

Williams is busy making the case for his House bill by hyping the savings and efficiencies while also offering assurance that this process is safe from fraud. The bill calls for those registering online to provide a driver’s license number or identification number.

“This isn’t something that you have to worry about fraud,” Williams told the Tallahassee Democrat. “There’s more fraud that takes place in the actual absentee ballot gathering, the petition gathering, the voting on Election Day itself than the actual filling out the application.”

Many conservatives and Republicans would agree wholeheartedly with that statement. By providing proper proof the applicant is who he or she says they are, fraud is dramatically reduced.

This is precisely why so many on the Republican side fight as hard as they do to preserve Voter ID laws in the states where those protections were enacted. It is important that Williams recognizes voter integrity provisions are needed at the front end of the process. They are equally necessary on Election Day.

Some provisions within the House and Senate bill require clarification that only a committee or subcommittee hearing can provide. Since the bill is only three and one-half pages in length, this agenda item should not take long.

Despite the bill’s requirement for identification, it contains a possible contradiction. The bill states that should an applicant’s name and date of birth not be verified, “but the applicant is otherwise eligible to vote, the online voter registration system shall issue a unique identification number” and transmit to the local supervisor pursuant to current law.

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The sponsors will need to explain precisely what “otherwise eligible to vote” means. Current law allows applicants to substitute the last four digits of his or her Social Security number if they have no driver’s license or state-issued identification card.

If applicants are able to provide none of that information, they may be able to vote provisionally, but must provide the Florida Department of State with one of these items for proof within two days after Election Day.

The bill also says the state Division of Elections “may establish procedures for applicants who do not have a Florida driver license or Florida identification card.” Is this language intended to replace existing law (97.053 FS)?

This would seem to give the Secretary of State wider latitude in accepting applicants unable to prove their identity. The Republican majorities would likely feel comfortable that current Secretary of State Ken Detzner would not “establish procedures” for such applicants. They would have no such comfort allowing a future Democratic appointee with such discretion.

The bill’s prospects are not good for this session. It must currently get through four House committees, usually a kiss of death, before making it to the floor. The companion Senate bill is assigned to three committees.

Republicans dominate the Legislature and if leadership does not wish to hear this bill, it dies. Even if that is the ultimate result, all of us should understand that online registration is coming.

“We cannot continue to embrace a typewriter mentality in an iPad world,” said Williams.

Why not establish clear procedures for the 2016 elections? The sponsors state a desire to prevent fraud, so take them up on it.

They also seek to register more voters. This is a positive motive as long as those appearing in the recent videos taken during Tampa’s Gasparilla festivities are not among them.

Consult case law, ask questions and lay out the procedures for secure online registration. We can do that, plus enhance the integrity and efficiency of our election process.

Whether or not anything actually passes this year, there are good reasons for Republicans, as well as those seeking government efficiencies, to become publicly engaged. It’s not a matter of if online registration is coming, it’s when.

Bob Sparks is a business and political consultant based in Tallahassee. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Written By

Bob Sparks is a former political consultant who previously served as spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida, Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Attorney General. He was a senior adviser to former Gov. Charlie Crist. Before entering politics, he spent nearly two decades in professional baseball administration. He can be reached at rjsparks24@gmail.com and Twitter @BobSparksFL.

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Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Renzo Downey, Rick Flagg, A.G. Gancarski, Joe Henderson, Janelle Irwin, Jacob Ogles, Scott Powers, Bob Sparks, Andrew Wilson.
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