For all the opposition to Florida’s new voting restrictions, the legislation would have been much worse but for negotiations undertaken by Florida’s 67 supervisors of elections, their lobbyist testified Friday in a constitutional challenge to the law.
Civil- and voting rights groups including the League of Women Voters of Florida and the NAACP have spent two weeks in trial introducing evidence that the 2021 law in question, SB 90, has made it much more difficult to register voters and cast vote-by-mail ballots using drop boxes instead of relying on the U.S. Postal Service, among other complaints.
Now, attorneys defending the law, including Attorney General Ashley Moody and representatives of the state and national Republican Party, have begun presenting their evidence. Among their first witnesses was David Ramba, who represents Florida’s Election Supervisors.
While the legislation was pending, Ramba said, he and the leaders of the supervisors’ trade group worked closely with legislative leaders to shape it, including the Republicans leading the relevant committees and ranking Democrats, he said.
The effort produced gains, from the supes’ perspective, he testified.
For example, early House language would have banned drop boxes entirely as a means for casting vote-by-mail ballots; the final version restricts them to supervisors’ main and branch offices, where staff are available to supervise them, during early in-person voting periods, generally around 14 days.
And, although the supervisors never actually endorsed the finished bill, neither did they oppose it, Ramba said.
“Nobody gets everything they want in this process. And we had such a large change from where we started … that we were not going to them, after they make all those changes for you, then oppose the bill and ask for a veto. It’s just bad form,” he said.
“It is a delicate dance, correct?” asked U.S. District Judge Mark Walker of Tallahassee, who’s hearing the case by Zoom.
“Yes, sir. We’re all the government. We’re supposed to, from a public standpoint, work together. And that’s what we try to do,” said Ramba, referring to the supervisors that he represents.
Ramba undercut testimony provided earlier in the trial by two Democratic state House members — Anna Eskamani and Carlos Guillermo Smith, both of Orange County — suggesting the Republicans running the bill through the House engaged in underhanded tactics.
Specifically, they objected to the emergence, at 1:30 a.m. the day the full House was to take up the legislation, of a “strike all” amendment — that is, an amendment heavily rewriting the bill. The move left the opposition scrambling to understand what the amendment said.
“It seemed like a tactic designed to, kind of, pass the bill because you can,” Eskamani said at the time.
Ramba, by contrast, said it’s not unusual for amendments to emerge as late as two hours before floor debate and that the single amendment represented a simple way to handle a large number of smaller changes.
“You just do those little tweaks in one version so you don’t have to have eight different amendments or nine different amendments on these little, small, technical amendments on the floor,” he said.
The supervisors understood as early as December 2020 that elections law changes were coming, given the broad attention to former President Donald Trump’s and other Republicans’ attempts to cast doubt on the results and election security in general, Ramba testified.
Gov. Ron DeSantis had pressed the Legislature to adopt the new voting restrictions, including limits on the availability of ballot drop boxes, more onerous rules for third-party voter registration drives, ending the ability to provide food and water to people waiting in line to vote, and $25,000 fines for supervisors who stray from the new legal requirements.
Plaintiffs’ attorney David Fox, cross-examining Ramba, noted that the supervisors initially opposed the bill — including the drop box restrictions and a provision requiring voters to request vote by mail ballots every two years, rather than every four — and never endorsed the final product.
Ramba conceded the point but added: “There’s a big legislative difference between opposing a bill, asking for a veto, and not supporting something. We were very careful in how that was worded, and how I recommended those things be worded, in order to continue our very good working relationship with both the House and the Senate.”
Walker asked a question:
“I’m assuming, since you and the supervisors have to go back to the Legislature every year, it’s not a good idea to, if you were a farmer, use your silo as the outhouse,” he wondered. “You can’t offend the very people that can — I don’t know, do things like include a $25,000 penalty if you screw up with drop boxes. Is that a fair statement?”
“Yes, your honor,” Ramba replied.
In fact, he continued, the association is already asking the Legislature to drop those penalties and allow 24-hour video monitoring of drop boxes, as long as they are located in supervisors’ offices.
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