Policing and voting: Republicans in FL Legislature and Democrats in Congress push in opposite directions

Protesters demonstrated in Columbus, Ohio, in solidarity with nationwide protests against the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. Credit: Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images

With Democrats now in control of Congress, lawmakers at the federal level are advancing policing reforms, expanding voting rights, requiring use of face masks on federal property, and trying to raise the minimum wage.

But state-level Republicans in control of the Florida Legislature are moving in the opposite direction on those and other issues, creating a schism between what’s happening in Washington, D.C., and what’s happening in Tallahassee, Florida’s state capital.

The U.S. Capitol. Credit: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

State and federal governments have long been entwined, but nowadays, at least in Florida, the relationship is sharply divided.

Efforts that GOP state lawmakers deride as “woke” culture bent on dismantling law enforcement, fomenting disorder, stealing elections, and bankrupting the economy, Congressional Democrats characterize as relief for Americans burdened by coronavirus, financial distress, and racial injustice.

The political parties’ outlooks could hardly be more different, judging by their legislative priorities.

The League of Women Voters of Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, and a former Florida Supreme Court chief justice question the agenda being pushed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and his GOP allies. They say mob violence and election fraud aren’t pressing problems in Florida, while police violence and voter suppression are.

Florida Capitol
The Historic Capitol, foreground, and Florida Capitol buildings. Photo, Colin Hackley

“It appears that the people proposing these bills are not interested in everyone having the right to vote and are not interested in people having the right to free speech,” said former Chief Justice Peggy Quince, who served on the state’s highest court from 1998 until 2019, when she retired. She was chief justice from 2008 to 2010 and is a board member at the League of Women Voters of Florida.

Quince said in an interview Saturday that it is urgent that lawmakers halt police brutality, curb systemic racism, and bolster voting rights. She opposes efforts sponsored by Florida Republican leaders to restrict access to voting, including early voting and voting by mail, and making it hazardous to participate in protests — such as Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 denouncing police use of excessive force and killings of unarmed Black people.

Across the country, the 2020 presidential election expanded the chasm between Democrats in Congress and Republicans in charge of the Florida Legislature.

The election removed Donald Trump from the White House but made his supporters in Florida — including “Stop the Steal” dissidents who think the election was rigged and who think law enforcement is under attack by the Black Lives Matter movement — a political prize to be courted by Republicans eyeing state races in 2022 and national races in 2024.

Policing and protesting

The first bill on the GOP agenda, literally House Bill 1, aims to make it hazardous to participate in protests in Florida and outlaws any local attempts to “defund the police,” a slogan that arose from Black Lives Matter protests last year in response to police brutality against unarmed Black people.

DeSantis and House Speaker Chris Sprowls condemn any efforts to reduce law-enforcement funding and have not endorsed any bills to reform police practices in Florida.

“Working with [Senate] President [Wilton] Simpson, Speaker Sprowls, and law enforcement groups across the state, we have proposed the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement reforms in the nation,” DeSantis said on opening day of the 2021 legislative session. “We will not permit localities to jeopardize the safety of their citizens by indulging in the insane fantasy of defunding law enforcement.”

Sprowls’ opening day remarks included a reference to “intolerance created by the rising Woke agenda,” another allusion to the racial-justice movement.

Quince, who publicly denounces HB 1, said “defund the police” is a misnomer for the desire to see law enforcement funding focus more on good relations with minority communities and less on activities that lead to violent encounters.

Demonstrators gathered in Tallahassee near the Florida Capitol on May 31, 2020, to protest the police killing of George Floyd. Credit: Peter T. Reinwald

While HB 1 is moving steadily through the Republican-controlled Florida House of Representatives, the Democratically controlled U.S. House of Representatives last week passed sweeping reforms named in memory of George Floyd, the unarmed Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck as he lay face-down and handcuffed. Floyd was under arrest on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and Florida’s Legislative Black Caucus oppose HB1 and endorse a bevy of bills to curb use of excessive force, elevate standards for recruiting and training law enforcement officers, and hold bad cops accountable by tracking complaints against them in a central database.

“Bills at the federal and state levels could not be more diametrically opposed,” said Kara Gross, legislative director of ACLU Florida, in an interview Saturday.

She said the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants, restrict use of deadly force, require officers to wear body cameras and use dashboard cameras, limit transfer of military-grade equipment, require more investment in equitable public safety, raise accreditation standards, collect and track data on misconduct, and criminalize sexual activity by an officer with a person in his or her detention.

Those provisions would apply only to federal law enforcement agencies, but federal funding for state and local law enforcement would be conditioned on them complying, too.

Gross said the act addresses the “root causes” of brutality against minorities.

“In stark contract, the governor’s HB 1 addresses none of these issues,” Gross said. “This bill is really about criminalizing peaceful protests.”

At the heart of HB 1, which dramatically expands existing laws against public violence, is a new provision allowing police to charge every person at a gathering where disorder occurs with a felony, regardless of who caused the disorder. Every person at such a gathering would be held overnight in jail without bail and could be found guilty of a felony, subject to prison time and the consequences of having such a conviction on one’s record.

“It’s already a felony to riot,” Gross said. “With HB 1, you can do no violence and still get charged with a felony.”

Voting rights and election fraud

The U.S. House passed House Resolution 1 last week to expand access to voter registration, early voting, and voting by mail, and to restore the Voting Rights Act. The resolution calls for independent congressional redistricting commissions, restricts voter purging, and requires presidents and vice presidents to disclose their tax returns.

Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images.

In contrast, top Republicans in Florida are calling for more limits on early voting and mail-in balloting, saying that while Florida’s 2020 elections were flawless, there is always potential for fraud, reflecting Trump’s claim that the presidential election was “stolen” by Democrats.

Gov. DeSantis, considered a potential presidential contender for 2024, was among the first to question presidential election results that favored Joe Biden in battleground states and urged legislators in those states to instead cast their electoral ballots for Trump. Biden won the presidency.

Justice Quince said she hopes that Congress will pass House Resolution 1 to block efforts in Florida that she characterizes as voter suppression aimed at minorities.

“HR 1 [in Congress] would go a long way toward negating some of these state proposals,” Quince said. “It would take precedence.”

State Sen. Bobby Powell, chairman of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, said the partisan rancor around policing, civil unrest, white supremacy, and voting rights will make this session of the Legislature a difficult one.

“There is a possibility this will be a racially charged session,” Powell said. “We’re at a divergent point. We can be inclusive and work together … or we [the majority party] can shut another group out, because we can.”

Actions at the federal level will help Florida Democrats, Powell said, if their efforts at the state level fail.