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Suppression Or Security? Proposed Election Changes Cause Uproar

Voters line up to cast their ballots during early voting on Oct. 19, 2020 for the 2020 presidential election at the Southeast Regional Branch of the Jacksonville Public Library.
Voters line up to cast their ballots during early voting on Oct. 19, 2020 for the 2020 presidential election at the Southeast Regional Branch of the Jacksonville Public Library.

Four months ago, Gov. Ron DeSantis bragged that other states should emulate voting procedures in Florida, where former President Donald Trump’s solid Election Day victory over President Joe Biden was done and dusted long before midnight.

But the Republican governor, who will be on the ballot next year, and GOP legislative leaders are pushing changes to the state’s election process that Democrats are branding as “voter suppression,” county election officials “vehemently” oppose and experts say will “disproportionately” harm Black and Hispanic voters.

“I have heard of no supervisors who are in support of this bill,” Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley told a Senate committee last week, before the Republican-controlled panel approved a measure that would make wide-ranging changes to voting by mail.

State GOP leaders’ push to amend the elections process mimics efforts underway in other Republican-led states following Trump’s re-election defeat in November. Trump and his followers have repeatedly alleged that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen,” a claim without merit.

The proposed voting changes, which come after millions of voters in Florida and throughout the country opted to cast mail-in ballots amid the COVID-19 pandemic, are causing alarm for elections experts as well as Democrats.

“I don’t say this lightly. We are witnessing the greatest rollback of voting rights in this country since the Jim Crow era,” University of Florida political science professor Michael McDonald tweeted last month.

State legislatures throughout the nation are seeing “a tidal wave of voter suppression efforts,” Eliza Sweren-Becker, voting rights and elections counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, told The News Service of Florida in a phone interview. 

The Florida Senate proposal (SB 90), sponsored by Ocala Republican Dennis Baxley, would require voters to request mail-in ballots more frequently, ban the use of drop boxes for voters to turn in ballots and allow only “immediate” family members to collect and deliver ballots to and from voters. 

DeSantis, a close ally of Trump, called last month for voting-law revisions, arguing that, despite a hiccup-free election in November, the state can’t “rest on our laurels”.

Republicans have relied heavily on the state’s no-excuse vote-by-mail process as the GOP has controlled the Legislature, almost all statewide offices and a majority of congressional seats over the past two decades.

But as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths began to spike last year in Florida and elsewhere, Democrats and left-leaning groups urged voters to cast ballots by mail. Election supervisors in Florida also encouraged the use of mail-in ballots in advance of the November election, and the numbers of mail-in ballots skyrocketed.

Under current state law, a voter’s request for a mail-in ballot is active for two general elections, which occur every two years. The Senate measure, if passed, would wipe out all current requests and require voters to ask for ballots if they want to vote by mail in next year’s election. The measure would require voters to request mail-in ballots prior to every general election.

Trump has frequently voted by mail, but the former president and his allies have asserted that mail-in ballots are vulnerable to fraud. Experts, including federal and state officials, say no evidence of widespread wrongdoing exists.

State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a Spring Hill Republican who shepherded a 2019 elections package through the House, acknowledged that Florida’s 2020 elections ran smoothly. 

But lawmakers “should never miss an opportunity to make a good thing even better,” he told the News Service on Monday.

“Just because we had a successful election does not mean that there are not serious policy proposals regarding elections that we should consider,” Ingoglia, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said. “We’ll put more guardrails up, and it will be more safe, more secure than it was under the prior election law. Isn’t that what everybody wants? Safe and secure elections?”

The measure Ingoglia sponsored in 2019, which became law, included a provision allowing election officials to use drop boxes for voters to submit mail-in ballots. 

The drop boxes became a flashpoint last fall, however. 

DeSantis’ administration told supervisors of elections that the boxes, employed by local officials to make voting by mail safer amid the pandemic, needed to be staffed. The supervisors’ lawyer Ron Labasky, however, maintained that state law doesn’t require the boxes to be manned.

Ingoglia said supervisors were not implementing the drop boxes in the way the law intended and that he endorses “reforming the way we use drop boxes.” The Senate plan would do away with the boxes altogether.

Although the House has not released an elections package, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said he supports the governor’s effort to tighten voting laws.

Ingoglia defended the provision in the Senate proposal that would require voters to sign up for mail-in ballots more frequently.

“I think that supervisors of elections should be engaged with their voters on a more frequent basis, i.e., every election cycle, not every other election cycle,” he said,

But Jasmine Burney-Clark, the founder of Equal Ground Education Fund, said erasing current mail-in ballot requests and requiring voters to resubmit them will serve as a boon to the GOP next year. After Trump raised questions about voting by mail and urged voters to cast their ballots in person, “there was a mass departure” from mail-in ballots by Republicans, she said.

“Because their folks are not going to automatically receive a vote-by-mail ballot next year … let’s just flip and remove everyone off the sign-up and require everyone to sign back up so they’re starting from the same playing field. Actually that isn’t the same playing field. It’s just creating a hurdle,” said Burney-Clark, whose organization focused on Black voter turnout in Orange, Pinellas, Seminole and Volusia counties last year. 

The proposed revamp of Florida’s voting procedures is a stark contrast to an elections and ethics measure approved by the Democrat-led U.S. House this month. The “For the People Act,” however, remains a long shot in the U.S. Senate, where Republicans oppose the proposal.

Back at the states’ level, “the vast, vast, vast majority” of efforts to curtail voting rights are coming from Republicans, Sweren-Becker said.

“It appears that there’s a view that it’s more advantageous to limit the electorate and make it harder for people to vote than it is to go out and win votes and persuade people to your positions,” she added. “The rationale for these policies is so thoroughly debunked.”

How far-reaching Florida’s elections package will be remains uncertain. But with Republicans controlling the House and Senate, Democrats’ ability to impede the effort is severely limited.

Democrats are worried that GOP leaders could target early voting on the last Sunday before Election Day, a daylong event known as “souls to the polls” in which Black churches play a significant role in getting members to cast ballots. Republicans legislators in Georgia are considering such a measure.

Eliminating the Sunday early voting ritual in Florida would be “tantamount to voter suppression,” Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, told reporters during a weekly conference call on Monday. 

She pointed to “overwhelming election activity and participation” nationwide last year.

“Frankly, I think that has terrified Republicans. They don’t want large turnout, because they know that it means that it puts some of their majorities in jeopardy across the country,” Driskell said.

But Ingoglia said Monday he isn’t aware of such an effort in Florida.

“I can tell you, in the discussions that I have with people, that has never come up,” he said.

Dara Kam is the Senior Reporter of The News Service Of Florida.