GOP reforms: Only immediate family could help pick up and deliver ballots; but what if there’s no family close by?

Polling places in Leon County ahead of the 2020 primaries. Credit: Issac Morgan

In Florida’s capital city this week, Alan Hays appeared before state senators to talk about his mother.

Hays is a former state lawmaker and Lake County’s supervisor of elections. How did his elderly mother figure into a hot debate in the Florida Legislature?

The answer involves voters who want or need help picking up and/or delivering their own mail-in ballot.

GOP lawmakers want to limit who can help, allowing only immediate family to “possess” someone else’s mail ballot. It is a change they say would ensure against misuse.

But for Alan Hays’ elderly mother and others like her, that’s a problem.

“Do you have any idea how many people like my dear mother don’t have an immediate family member living nearby?” said Hays, a Republican who served 12 years in the Florida Legislature and now is Lake County’s Supervisor of Elections.

“This is bad, bad policy.”

Republican state lawmakers this session are pitching reforms that include this one, making it harder for voters, including shut-ins, older voters, disabled voters, and minority voters, to cast their ballots without going to the polls.

In an interview Thursday with the Phoenix, Hays said his mother’s nearest relative lives 45 minutes away and that she, like all voters, should be free to let trusted friends and neighbors shuttle her ballot on her behalf if she so chooses. (Election procedures impose safeguards against tampering with such ballots).

Hays opposes the immediate-family-only provision and other GOP-backed election reforms sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, a north-central Florida Republican.

Baxley’s bill defines immediate family as spouse, parents, child, grandparent, or sibling. The designee would need to complete an affidavit and show a picture I.D. to pick up the blank ballot.

In legislative testimony this week, Hays said Baxley’s bill does not include a single one of the top 10 priorities recommended by the Florida Supervisors of Elections, a statewide association of which Hays is a member.

Having run seven campaigns for himself and hundreds of elections for voters in Lake County, Hays said election professionals, not politicians, should determine how to run free and fair elections.

“I know for a fact that they [legislators] don’t have a clue what it’s like to administer an election,” Hays said.

Hays said he told Baxley face to face that his bill is wrong-headed.

But Baxley, who acknowledges Florida’s 2020 elections went great, insists his bill will put “guardrails” on the system to keep it from going bad.

Sen. Joe Gruters, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, endorses Baxley’s bill, saying success is no reason to rest on laurels. Neither acknowledged any downsides the reforms they propose might have on election supervisors and voters.

Despite Florida’s stellar performance in the 2020 elections, state election laws are under fire from Republicans who want to roll back voting options that surged in popularity during the pandemic.

The rollbacks include removing ballot drop boxes, cancelling existing requests for mail-in ballots, doubling the frequency at which voters must request mail-in ballots, and outlawing the possession of a mail-in ballot by anyone other than the voter or an immediate relative, as in the case of Hays’ mother.

Fed-up voting rights advocates and election supervisors from both political parties say there is no straightforward justification for the voting-options rollbacks proposed in Florida, and they are calling it voter suppression that will curtail turnout and cost local election offices millions of dollars to implement.

To what end?

Some voting-rights advocates come right out and say the goal is to cut into voting by Democrats, particularly Democrats of color, who collectively cast nearly 700,000 more ballots by mail in Florida in 2020 than did Republicans.

“It seems to be coming from national forces,” said Brad Ashwell, Florida director of All Voting Is Local, a voting rights organization with state chapters around the country.

Ashwell pointed to trackers maintained by The Brennan Center for Justice and  The Voting Rights Lab that report lawmakers in Florida and 42 other states are pushing vote-by-mail rollbacks. National reporting by the Washington Post and CBS News conclude that Republicans are sweeping the nation with initiatives to place obstacles in the way of minority voters who helped Democrats flip leadership in the U.S. Senate and the White House.

On the flip side, trackers report that lawmakers in an equal number of states are pushing expansions of voting options that facilitated record voter turnout in 2020 despite the obstacles posed by rampant COVID-19 and U.S. Postal Service delivery slowdowns.

Ashwell said an analysis of voting data show Democrats in 2020 voted by mail in record numbers, overcoming what had long been a Republican edge in that manner of voting.

“The Democrats flipped that from prior years. Republicans want to keep that from happening again,” Ashwell said. Partisan groups, nonpartisan groups, and election officials went all out in 2020, he said, to educate voters about their options for casting ballots under last year’s uniquely difficult circumstances. The education drive led to increased voter participation, including greater numbers of Black and Hispanic voters.

The Florida Division of Elections reports that voting by mail in 2020 surged among Democrats, compared to Republicans. On the other hand, early voting at polling places in the 2020 general election favored Republicans, and early voting is not targeted for new restrictions in Baxley’s bill.

Republicans prevailed in most elections in Florida, including the presidential election, with former President Donald Trump beating Democrat Joe Biden, who still won nationwide.

Solution seeks problem

Along with the measure allowing only immediate family to assist a voter with a ballot, Baxley’s reform addresses drop boxes, which election experts say were a huge player in the success of the 2020 elections.

That raises the question: Why do Sen. Baxley and other Republicans want to do away with drop boxes?

“It’s absolutely outrageous what they’re doing. These are attempts to muck up our voting process after we proved our elections were practically flawless,” said Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, in an interview with the Phoenix.

“This is blatant voter suppression. One party is doing everything it can to stay in power,” Brigham said.

Brigham and Ashwell said calls for such election reform imply elections were tainted, which all Americans know by now is the basis of Trump’s insistence that the presidential “election was stolen” from him.

The implication of voting fraud is definitely false in Florida, they said, while the proposed reforms would make it hard for certain voters to vote again.

Brigham said seniors, people with disabilities, and young voters strongly favored voting by mail and by absentee, rather than in person at polling places. The ballot drop boxes make it easy for them to submit their ballots at their convenience.

Brigham and Hays, the Lake County election supervisor, also point to the added workload and expense that Baxley’s reforms would impose on election offices.

Hays said supervisors estimate it would cost $14 million to $16 million to implement just one of the provisions: to notify voters by mail that their requests for mail-in ballots are being cancelled and have to be resubmitted.

“They have to notify voters in their district that, sorry, the Legislature has nullified your request,” Hays said, noting that just one of his county’s municipalities has 8,000 outstanding requests that would have to be cancelled and then re-done — not just once every two years but every year.

“Where is this money going to come from?” asked Brigham. Hays forecast the expense would fall to county taxpayers.

In all, Brigham said the eroding of voting rights, regardless of the manner of voting, threatens democracy, which is why the League of Women Voters of Florida endorses expanded voting access.

“This is blatant voter suppression,” Brigham said. “It’s intended to sow confusion. It chips away at democracy, piece by piece. Democracy is a fragile ideal that has to be protected and cared for.”

As for Hays, if Baxley’s bill is adopted, Hays or one of his daughters would have to make the 45-minute drive to his mother’s house multiple times during election season, to assist her if she needs help getting her mail-in ballot and delivering it. This, instead of letting her choose a friend to help out.

Hays says that’s not good government.

“Whether I am a Republican or a Democrat or an NPA [no political affiliation] makes no difference. It’s not about the politics. It’s about the policy.”