Senate passes controversial election law update
Dennis Baxley. Image via Colin Hackley.

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'It's based on the big lie and the discredited claims that the 2020 election was rigged.'

The Senate has passed a high-profile bill to change Florida’s election laws with only Republican support.

Senators voted 23-17 to approve a proposal (SB 90) for stronger election laws to prevent election fraud and increase confidence in elections. Some say fraud happened in other states, and they fear it could happen in Florida.

The Florida proposal is among an onslaught of elections-related legislation being considered or passed by Republican-led legislatures throughout the country. The GOP-backed measures are a response to former President Donald Trump’s election loss to Democrat Joe Biden in November, as millions of people — including in Florida — opted to vote by mail amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Florida “can’t rest on (its) laurels” despite a successful 2020 cycle when announcing his vision for election changes.

The package, carried by Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, addresses election supervisors’ use of ballot drop boxes, signature matching on mail-in ballots and a host of other technical issues related to voting-by-mail and election administration.

For the first time in Florida, Democrats used vote-by-mail more than Republicans. Democrats contend the election bill would make it harder for people, particularly disadvantaged Floridians, to vote. St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes voted no with the Democrats.

“I believe it is a trick,” Jacksonville Democratic Sen. Audrey Gibson said. “There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing now, and we should not put any more impediments to folks exercising their right to vote, whether they show up in person or whether they hope to vote by mail.”

“Since voting is a right, why would we, as a state, attempt to reduce the right of a person to exercise their right to vote and in the manner in which they decide to vote? We may not have to take a test, count bubbles or marbles or any other such nonsense, but this bill is tantamount to the same thing.”

Sen. Perry Thurston said he and his Black colleagues’ scrutiny of the bill is screened through the context of “Florida’s sordid history” of such efforts as forcing Black voters to estimate the number of jelly beans in a jar before casting ballots, along with “poll taxes, literacy tests and even lynching” to keep them from participating in elections.

“So when we say we want to make changes to individuals’ right to vote, I can tell you that the people who were deprived of their right to vote for the longest time, they take that personally. This is serious business,” Thurston said. “And the question really becomes, why are we doing this? Why do we ever want to make it more difficult for anybody to vote? That answer should be never.”

Democrats used the Governor’s words against him, quoting his speech from the day after the election in which he highlighted the smooth operation Florida ran on election day.

“Despite this flawless election, we’re looking at this because it’s based on the big lie and the discredited claims that the 2020 election was rigged,” Lantana Democratic Sen. Lori Berman said.

That “big lie” contends Trump had the 2020 election stolen from him. DeSantis is an ally of the former President, and several of the Governor’s policies and proposals over the past year have positioned him as a possible successor.

“Let’s codify conspiracy theories. Isn’t that what we’re really doing here today? Isn’t this really just about voter suppression?” Tampa Democratic Sen. Janet Cruz argued.

Officials in other states have taken “liberties” to silence some voters, Tallahassee Democratic Sen. Loranne Ausley said.

“Florida is different. We’ve already been through that,” she continued, adding the bill would “turn back the clock” on the state’s election efficiencies.

The measure would expand the no solicitation zone around polling places and drop boxes to 150 feet. Within that area, people could not attempt to solicit votes or hand out items to voters. Election officials and volunteers could distribute items, including water, if they hand them out without the intent to sway voters.

That’s in contrast to bans recently signed into law in Georgia, which have drawn opposition from corporations.

“It’s not Georgia, but it’s definitely Georgia-light,” West Park Democratic Sen. Shevrin Jones said.

Florida’s elections were smooth not because of the state’s election laws but because of the Governor’s executive order ahead of the election, said Republicans such as Sen. Travis Hutson and Joe Gruters.

Gruters also pushed back against Democrats’ claim that Republicans were trying to suppress voters.

“It’s disappointing because this does nothing to suppress the vote. It does nothing to restrict to vote,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is making sure we preserve our sacred right and duty of having every vote count.

“The goal for everybody is to make it as easy as possible to vote and as hard as possible to cheat. This does nothing to suppress the vote. It does nothing to restrict the vote. What we’re trying to do is make sure that we preserve our sacred duty and right of having every vote count.”

Republicans also pointed to the no-questions-asked early voting period Florida has.

“It’s hard not to vote,” Zephyrhills Republican Sen. Danny Burgess said.

Baxley followed through on a promise to remove a provision on cross-referencing wet signatures. That measure would have required that signatures match one on file from the last four years.

An amendment to the House version of the bill (HB 7041), instead of removing the provision, pushed the signature window to eight years. If no usable signature is available in that time period, election officials could scan for older signatures.

During a meeting last week, Baxley brought the Senate package closer to the House version, which is now on its way to the House floor.

Initially, Baxley intended to ban the use of mail-in ballot drop boxes, first used in Florida during the 2020 election cycle. However, he made the bill more palatable to voting rights advocates by preserving drop boxes.

Under the Senate measure, supervisors could use ballot-drop boxes during early-voting hours, if the boxes are staffed by employees of the supervisors’ offices at all times. The proposal would make supervisors subject to a $25,000 fine if drop boxes are available to voters after early-voting hours.

But the Ocala Republican still holds reservations about drop boxes. Someone could potentially light a flame and set ballots within a box on fire, he warned as an example of things going wrong.

The Senate bill also includes new identification requirements for people requesting mail-in ballots, switching party affiliations or changing home addresses. The Senate plan would require voters to provide a driver’s license number, state identification number or the last four digits of their Social Security number, if they do not have a Florida-issued ID cards, to make the changes or request mail-in ballots.

“While I continue to have reservations about how they’re deployed and associated risk, our supervisors advocated very strongly for their continued use,” he said Thursday.

Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, the Spring Hill Republican sponsoring the House version, has supported the drop box proposal. He carried the 2019 law establishing drop boxes.

One provision written by Sen. Gary Farmer, the Democratic Leader, 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 this week 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.

In a brief close, Baxley thanked senators for following him on the “emotional” journey.

___

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.



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