State Rep. Joe Geller says his pushes to expand the state’s hate crime law and help Florida work as an end-around to the Electoral College are among his top priorities as the 2020 Legislative Session readies to kick off next week.
The Aventura Democrat is once again partnering with Sen. Kevin Rader to push the hate crime legislation after a previous effort during 2019 Session stalled out during the committee process.
But with Republican Rep. Jackie Toledo on board in the House this year and a spate of recent hate crimes reported across the country, Geller says he sees a chance to motivate lawmakers to take action this Session.
“The hate crime bill is something that increases penalties. It doesn’t constitute, by itself, crime,” Geller explained in a discussion regarding the state’s existing hate crime bill.
“It just increases the penalty because it’s something that we want to to stop, stamp out, control as much as possible.”
Florida’s current hate crime statute applies to offenses based on a victim’s race, religion, sexual orientation and other factors. Geller’s measure (HB 655) would add “gender” and “gender identity” to the protected classes and would also strengthen the law’s protections against the physically disabled.
Even without the expanded legal protections, the FBI found a 51% rise in hate crimes in Florida from 2016 to 2017.
The statute does require an underlying offense, such as a battery, to prosecute an offender for a hate crime. If the offender was found to be motivated by prejudice in carrying out that offense, the classification of the crime is increased.
For instance, a second-degree misdemeanor is bumped up to a first-degree misdemeanor. An offense that would otherwise be a first-degree misdemeanor is increased to a third-degree felony, and so on.
“I think it’s important conceptually, the hate crimes bill does not punish thought and the hate crimes bill does not, by itself, punish speech,” Geller said.
The measure, generally, has been more popular among Democrats than Republicans. And while members of the opposing party have pushed back against his measure in the past, Geller says he believes they aren’t motivated by ill intent.
“There’s a philosophical reason,” Geller said of the opposition. “I’ve talked to some people on the other side. And I’ve had one, at least, who said, ‘I don’t support these kinds of bills in general because I don’t think we should get into why you’re committing the act. The bottom line is we should punish actions.'”
Geller said while he understands that argument, he says it’s somewhat moot given that the state’s hate crime law already exists.
“It’s a different argument than, ‘Should we have one?’ We already have one. Let’s make sure it’s as good a law as it can be. And I think there is some sentiment, especially when you see what is going on around the country.”
Geller is alluding to a recent series of anti-Semitic attacks in and around New York in recent weeks. With that sort of violence front and center, Geller is hoping that the Republican majority puts the bill on the floor before the Session is over.
While current law requires a hate crime to be based on prejudice toward an enumerated class, Geller’s measure would require the offense to be motivated “in whole or in part” by prejudice. That would expand the number of offenses that can qualify as a hate crime.
The South Florida lawmaker says a second priority during the 2020 Session is adding Florida to the Nationwide Popular Vote Interstate Compact.
“It’s a method of avoiding the worst of this Electoral College without having to do a constitutional amendment,” Geller explained of his bill (HB 355).
The agreement has already been signed by 15 states and the District of Columbia, which are responsible for a total of 196 electoral votes.
Once enough jurisdictions agree to the compact totaling 270 votes — an electoral majority — then electors in those states are bound to vote for whichever candidate wins the nationwide popular vote.
In a hypothetical world where enough states, including Florida, agreed to this compact before 2016, that would have meant Florida’s electoral votes would have gone to Hillary Clinton despite Donald Trump winning Florida’s popular vote.
That’s because Clinton received more votes nationwide. The compact is attempting to ensure the popular vote winner is selected to the presidency regardless of the state-by-state electoral vote count.
Is it constitutional? Well, the U.S. Constitution gives wide latitude to states regarding how they conduct their individual elections. The law is currently unsettled as to whether a state’s electors could shirk a state’s popular election result entirely. There is litigation ongoing which may answer that question.
The Electoral College was instituted to give states with smaller populations proportionally more impact on the presidential election than larger states, such as Florida. Electoral college advocates argue the system prevents the most populous states from dictating the outcome of the election every four years.
But Geller says he is firmly in the camp of awarding the presidency to the individual who earns the most votes throughout the country.
“This relic of protecting the states’ rights of small states comes from the late 18th century and is not necessarily terribly relevant to our current society,” Geller said.
“The idea that every person who votes in Wyoming has their vote count, per electoral vote, almost four times as much as every person who votes in Florida — every Floridian should be up in arms about that.”