Controversial election bill heads to the Senate floor despite bipartisan criticism
Dennis Baxley. Image via Colin Hackley.

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The House bill was sent to the House floor the day prior.

The Senate’s bill to update Florida’s election law is ready for the Senate floor, where it could still go through more changes.

The Senate Rules Committee took up the bill (SB 90), sponsored by Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, Tuesday after the bill was held on the agenda after lengthy debate the week before. The panel passed it by a 10-7 vote.

Questions, debate, and testimony on the bill ran for more than three hours during the meeting on Wednesday. Committee Chair Kathleen Passidomo said she rolled the bill over to the next meeting to give everyone the chance to debate it because she believed it was an important issue.

The committee spent less than 30 minutes Tuesday considering the package, which addresses elections supervisors’ use of ballot drop boxes; signature matching on mail-in ballots; and a host of other administrative issues related to voting by mail and election administration.

Senate Democratic Leader Gary Farmer declined to make a technical challenge to the bill based on the abrupt adjournment to the last meeting. It would only “delay the inevitable,” he capitulated.

The vote-by-mail system worked “tremendously well,” he said, and it was praised by Gov. Ron DeSantis. He also noted that Democrats, for the first time in Florida, used the system more than Republicans.

“So that has led many to ask us, you know, why are we doing this? Why, after such an effective election cycle with great enfranchisement of so many people in a methodology that proved to be so desirable to so many voters?” Farmer said before the committee voted 10-7 to approve the bill (SB 90).

“The right to vote should be encouraged, never imperiled. The right to vote should be promoted, not discouraged, We just feel that so many of the provisions in this bill don’t have any necessity behind them.”

Baxley said he understood concerns from Democrats and critics about making it harder to vote and that election law is controversial. In particular, he said he would remove a requirement on crossreferencing wet signatures.

“By listening to others and understanding your heart, I’m willing — this Senate is willing — to take it out,” Baxley said.

But overall, he said the bill was well intentioned, or started with good intentions, to protect voters, their ballots, and their right to sincerely offer water to voters in line. He could look people in the eye and ensure that, he argued.

“These are good provisions crafted together because we listened,” Baxley said. “I hope you’ll listen to me as I ask for your vote on this election bill that we can all be proud of.”

St. Petersburg Sen. Jeff Brandes was the only Republican to vote against the bill. He noted that former Sen. Alan Hays, now the Supervisor of Elections for Lake County, strongly opposes the measure, arguing it would hurt the voting process.

“To my knowledge, not one Republican supervisor of elections in the state of Florida supports this bill in its current form,” Brandes said.

During the meeting last week, Baxley brought the Senate package closer to the House version (HB 7041), which is now on its way to the House floor. It became more palatable to voting rights advocates by preserving mail-in ballot drop boxes, first used in Florida during the 2020 election cycle.

One amendment by Farmer and Sen. Debbie Mayfield, the Republican Leader, would prevent third-party candidates from switching their party affiliation at the last minute. That language was inspired by a developing story from the 2020 election in which former Sen. Frank Artiles enlisted a third-party candidate to spoil the election for an incumbent Democrat, according to law enforcement.

Baxley highlighted that measure as a display of his willingness to work across the aisle to improve the bill.

The House version doesn’t have that provision.

An amendment to the House bill Monday would allow the Governor to fill a vacancy left by local elected officials who resign to run for another office if the office is made vacant within 28 months of the next general election.

“We’re taking away the special treatment for politicians who resign for political purposes,” Ingoglia told reporters Monday. “If a politician would have resigned to retire, it would have been governed this way.”

Republicans have called for stronger election laws to prevent election fraud they say happened in other states and fear could happen in Florida. Earlier this year, DeSantis said Florida “can’t rest on (its) laurels” when announcing his vision for election reforms.

Democrats have called the measure a solution in search of a problem, and Baxley seemed to agree, adding that he wanted to preserve the “chain of responsibility” for handling ballots.

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The News Service of Florida contributed to this post. Republished with permission.

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.


One comment

  • Sylvia A. Croft

    April 21, 2021 at 10:53 pm

    If we have done without absentee drop boxes before 2020 which was a horrifical and long drawn out election for America, why would we leave them now? Voting is a responsibility and should include simply mailing in the ballot on time.

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