Florida Legislature approves controversial restrictions on voting

Voters prepare to submit their postal vote at the Miami-Dade County Electoral Department in Doral, Fla., On October 6, 2020, AP Photo / Wilfredo Lee

TALLAHASSEE – Florida’s Republican-led legislature – passed new election restrictions and restricted the conduct of elections by local officials on Thursday in response to unsubstantiated complaints of electoral fraud following the 2020 presidential election.

Legislation now goes to Governor Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign the bill ahead of a potentially expensive and highly competitive 2022 re-election campaign.

While lawmakers lifted many of the stricter restrictions after weeks of heated debate, the House and Senate continued to approve the bill (SB 90) largely party-political. Democrats called the measure unnecessary and said it was more about responding to the “big lie” of electoral fraud by former President Donald Trump and countering the Democrats’ advantage in postal voting.

“There’s absolutely no reason to stop people from voting and make it much harder,” said Senator Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat. “It’s still a suppression bill.”

MEP Geraldine Thompson, a black Democrat from Windermere, described the move as a modern effort to impose new restrictions on minority voters.

“People like me got on the back of the bus and you want me to sit here and accept it,” Thompson said.

Republicans countered that Florida voters still have many more choices than other Democratic states. They claimed the changes would be implemented in “guard rails” so that problems that arose elsewhere in 2020 would not show up in the Sunshine State.

“We had a great choice, but why should we stop there?” said Senator Travis Hutson, a Republican from St. Augustine.

State Senator Joe Gruters, who is also the chairman of the Florida Republican Party, claimed GOP lawmakers were trying to “make it as easy to vote as possible and to cheat as hard as possible”.

“This doesn’t help suppress the vote, it doesn’t restrict the vote,” he said earlier this week.

The law is nowhere near as restrictive as the measure approved in Georgia, which has been widely condemned by business leaders, Democrats and sports organizations.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Florida saw the number of postal ballot papers spike, and nearly 44 percent of those who voted in the 2020 presidential election did not cast their ballots in person. About 1.5 million of these postal ballot papers were placed in post boxes, which allowed voters to bypass the postal service and hand them over directly to election officials.

The Florida elections went relatively smoothly, and DeSantis himself boasted that the state had once and for all “defeated” the spirit of the recount of the 2000 presidential election that ridiculed the state internationally. But then in late February the governor called for many of the changes listed on the bill on his desk.

One of the major changes in the bill would include a two-ballot limit on the number of postal ballot papers that one could collect and cast on behalf of elderly or sick and disabled voters. There is an exception for immediate family members, but some Democrats predicted that this would result in older voters being less able to participate.

The bill would impose new restrictions on the use of Dropboxes and prevent outside groups from giving grants to help local and state election officials conduct elections. It did so in response to a Chicago-based nonprofit that was distributing millions in relief supplies ahead of the 2020 elections. Most of the money from this nonprofit came from Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

At one point the bill put a blanket ban on distributing food and water to voters within 150 feet of a polling station or drop box. However, lawmakers changed this to instead prevent anyone from attempting to influence a voter in that zone.

Leon County Election Officer Mark Earley admitted that, unlike previous incarnations suggesting removing Dropboxes or emailing any current files that were already on file, the final bill “No- Show-Stopper ”. However, Earley was upset that the move would impose heavy fines on local state election officials for failing to follow some of the new dropboxing rules.

“We still see the $ 25,000 fine as an insult to a group that had the best elections in the nation in unprecedented difficult circumstances,” Earley said in a text message. “Thanks for the slap in the face.”

For years, Florida Republicans used postal voting to keep the state government under control. But amid the ongoing attacks by Trump on mail-in voting and the pandemic, Democrats gained a significant advantage in mail-in votes in the 2020 general election. More than 2.18 million Democrats used postal ballots compared to 1.5 million Republican voters.

Another provision in the bill that was despised by the Democrats removes a spin-off of existing state law that requires an election if someone leaves office to apply for another elected position. Democrats called it a “takeover” that they said would give DeSantis the power to fill the seats of two Broward County commissioners expected to locate the late Congressman Alcee Hastings. Hastings died earlier this month.

The legislation included a nod to Democrats: it would prohibit anyone from running as an independent candidate unless they had been registered as an independent candidate for a full year before qualifying for the vote. Senate Democrats pushed for the change after a Miami-Dade County criminal investigation into a scheme in which a bogus candidate ran in a Senate race to allegedly siphon the votes of a Democratic candidate.

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