Democrats in Florida’s congressional delegation want Attorney General Merrick Garland to protect Florida voters from suppression efforts.
U.S. Rep. Val Demings, an Orlando Democrat, led a letter co-signed by all 10 members of Florida’s House contingent raising fears Florida plans to step up efforts to suppress votes in minority communities. That effort could take place, Demings argued, even as several incidents of fraud are being uncovered in conservative areas of the state.
“Floridians deserve safe, secure, and fair elections. The Voting Rights Act, renewed on a bipartisan basis for 50 years, empowered the Department of Justice to protect ordinary Floridians like my parents from discriminatory election meddling,” said Demings, who has filed to challenge U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio this year.
“But today partisans in the Senate are blocking these protections for Florida voters while politicians in Florida are working to strip legal voters of their rights, efforts which call back to the darkest points of Florida’s history of voter suppression. The Florida legislature began its 60-day session this week with plans to introduce extreme and unprecedented attacks on our right to vote. The federal government must act to protect Floridians’ civil rights. The Department of Justice must take action.”
The request to the Justice Department went out the same day the Democrat-controlled U.S. House passed the For the People Act (HR 1), which would impose federal election rules countering many Florida proposals. That legislation, however, appears dead in the U.S. Senate.
The letter then itemizes concerns about proposals under consideration by state lawmakers, who entered Legislative Session this week.
“Florida has seen a disturbing rise in partisan efforts at voter suppression. Proposed legislation would further criminalize standard ‘get out the vote’ practices, making it a criminal act to, for example, notify a homebound voter of his or her option to request a mail-in ballot,” the letter stated. “In addition, there is a shameful attempt to reduce the number of drop boxes, particularly in certain precincts, and finally, the imposition of new deadlines on election supervisors to ‘clean voting rolls,’ an all too familiar strategy to purge voters of color throughout the country.”
Last November, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiled a legislative proposal including many of the actions listed in the letter. In addition to requiring a timeline for cleaning rolls of ineligible voters, he wants to prohibit the use of drop boxes for mail-in ballots.
Most controversially, he has proposed a law enforcement office focused on “election integrity.”
“I am excited that with this legislation, our state will be able to enforce election violations, combat voter fraud and make sure violators are held accountable,” DeSantis said in a statement unveiling his priorities. “If potential violators know they will be held accountable, they will be much less likely to engage in improper conduct in the first place.”
While Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson and Speaker Chris Sprowls haven’t fully endorsed the Governor’s proposal, legislation is expected to address several items on DeSantis’ wish list, including ballot harvesting. While lawmakers have shown some hesitancy about a $5.7 million budget requirement for the dedicated law enforcement arm, the presiding officers in both chambers of the GOP-controlled state Legislature nodded to concerns about fraud.
“I think that in our case, Floridians — but Americans — should be very proud of the way our elections are run,” Simpson said. He also said, however, “There should not be the hesitancy in the notion there is fraud in our election process.”
Added Sprowls: “The Governor’s concerned that there’s not that level of sophistication out there of people who are working these kinds of cases. We’re going to look at it, we’ll evaluate it and see what happens.”
The letter from Democratic members of Congress notes many of the actions proposed would have been subject to preclearance before a 2013 Supreme Court ruling effectively gutted that practice, which had been implemented by the Voting Rights Act.
Demings, who is Black, cited the story of her own family to illustrate the importance of preserving every American’s right to vote.
“My parents, a maid and a janitor, knew that in the ballot box their vote counted the same as the President of the United States,” she said. “They always voted because they knew it was their chance to make their voices heard. But throughout Florida’s history, partisan politicians have tried to take away the voices of voters like my parents. To ensure liberty and justice for all, we must have fair election rules and nonpartisan investigations when wrongdoing occurs.”
The letter expressed concern about the politicization of so-called voting integrity investigations. It noted a recent run of cases that surfaced in Florida.
“While voter suppression efforts are ongoing, we are also extremely concerned that investigations into voting integrity are being politicized,” the letter reads.
It cited recent arrests of four residents in Sumter County for voting in Florida and another state, a Lake County woman sending in false voter registration applications, and two Duval men sending in fake voter registration forms. It also noted a case of a Miami-Dade resident’s voter registration unknowingly being changed from Democrat to Republican.
“Let’s be clear: the crimes described above are examples of the system working because these individuals were caught and held accountable. These criminal acts were identified through the diligent work of local election officials with strong records of efficient, transparent, and lawful election facilitation,” the letter stated.
But the rush of cases, most of which appear to involve Republicans illegally influencing Florida’s elections and rolls, may be used as a pretense for laws that target minority (and Democrat-leaning) communities, Demings argued.
“Unfortunately, state officials in Florida are instead working to politicize our elections, blur existing lines of authority, and hamper the ability of local election officials to properly administer elections. Harmful proposals to create new partisan bodies to oversee our voting process are exactly the kind of action that demand oversight as we work to ensure that our voting process is unquestionably trustworthy,” the letter stated.
“We believe that there must be a complete and thorough investigation by the Department of Justice to identify and stop any other patterns of voter suppression that threaten the integrity of our electoral process in the state of Florida. Our republic depends on the integrity of our electoral process and every American deserves to know that, regardless of election outcomes, the process was free and fair.”