Florida’s election supervisors could face a $25,000 fine for not monitoring ballot drop boxes at all times. They also would be required to digitize voter signatures and secure them in a “password protected website,” according to sweeping election-law proposals pushed by GOP lawmakers.
Those proposed changes and others were unveiled Monday morning by a Republican-controlled House committee on elections, where they passed over Democratic objections.
This legislative session, Florida Republicans have been touting election reforms that critics fear will suppress voting. And Republicans in more than 40 states are pushing through reforms following the GOP’s loss of the U.S. House, U.S. Senate and the White House.
Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley warned the changes pose unnecessary and costly burdens on the state’s 67 election supervisors, despite widespread praise for their conduct of the 2020 elections amid a pandemic and a slowdown in mail service.
Earley also warned that an online archive of voter signatures poses a security risk.
“Some of the key points I’m concerned about are issues around digitizing the signatures and potentially putting those on the internet, or in some kind of location where the digital images are exposed. I think that opens up great opportunities, very bad opportunities, for identity theft,” Earley said in a press conference following the House committee hearing.
The signatures could be viewed remotely by “political parties, candidates and candidates’ designees” and could be viewed at an elections office or branch office by “an elector in the county.” Earley and others said that’s too much access to signatures for no good reason.
“Having those open for you through a digital interface is asking for massive trouble,” Earley said.
Unlike a bill advancing in the Senate, the new House Public Integrity and Elections Committee bill being spearheaded by Hernando County Rep. Blaise Ingoglia would not ban the use of drop boxes but would instead permit their use only during early-voting periods and would require election supervisors to have them monitored in person at all times – or be subject to a $25,000 fine.
Asked why he wants such stiff provisions, Ingoglia criticized elections supervisors.
“They were overly flippant,” he said, accusing some of making their own rules and not strictly adhering to legislative direction.
Earley disputed that characterization, saying he knew of no improprieties and reiterating that elections statewide ran smoothly despite the challenges of staging an election with historic turnout amid the COVID pandemic and despite mail-delivery slowdowns caused by cutbacks in the U.S. Postal Service.
In another difference from the Senate bill, voters’ requests for vote-by-mail ballots already on record would not be cancelled. Still, both bills would henceforth require voters to request their mail ballots twice as often as they do under current law.
Like the Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, the Ingoglia bill would restrict who can pick up or deliver a mail ballot for someone else. The bills would only allow immediate family members or members of the voter’s household to handle a voter’s ballot for him or her.
Rep. Allison Tant, a Leon County Democrat, said that provision disenfranchises people with disabilities – such as her adult son in Broward County — and shut-ins with mobility problems if they live alone and don’t have immediate family members nearby.
Both the Baxley and Ingoglia bills also would outlaw funding by out-of-state entities. Ingoglia said such funding could “engineer’ results by assisting voters in certain counties and not others. But Earley disputed the claim, saying he knew of no county that was offered assistance that was not offered to all.
Rep. Tracie Davis, formerly a Duval County deputy elections supervisor, said the proposed reforms would make voting more difficult for no good reason and could cost taxpayers millions of dollars. She and others repeatedly asked Ingoglia to estimate the expense to county elections offices, but he demurred, saying only, “Election security is priceless.”
Republicans on the House elections committee were silent on a well-documented election scandal that hit Florida last week, involving the arrest of former Sen. Frank Artiles, a Miami Republican operative, on charges that he paid nearly $50,000 to a sham independent candidate last fall to siphon Democratic votes away from former Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat. It cost Javier Rodriguez his Senate seat. He lost to a Republican newcomer by only 32 votes, while the sham candidate garnered some 6,000.
“If they really wanted to go after fraud, there it is,” said Brad Ashwell, Florida director of All Voting Is Local, following the House hearing.
Tant, a former state Democratic Party chair, was scornful of the bill claiming to cure fraud for which it has no evidence, while doing nothing to address the Artiles case.
“I see nothing in this bill on that,” Tant said during the hearing. She got no response.
Afterward, in the press conference, Tant said, “This is the most aggregious misuse of all … and I don’t hear a whisper about it. This should be part of the conversations, and I want to know why it’s not.”
Also Monday, the House elections committee rejected an amendment to the bill offered by Rep. Geraldine Thompson regarding voting rights for ex-felons. Her amendment would require the state to ascertain how much ex-felons may owe in restitution, fines and related debts, and advise them on how to pay it off in order to have their right to vote restored.
Currently, thousands of ex-felons are not allowed to vote — despite voter adoption of a 2018 constitutional amendment restoring their voting rights — until they pay off any outstanding debt related to their offenses. Thompson said she has found it is nearly impossible to determine across multiple agencies and courts what the total of those debts may be, rendering those people unable to clear the debts and unable to vote.