Election reforms — or voter suppression bills — forge ahead despite widespread opposition

At the Leon County Courthouse, 2020 voters could vote early in person or by dropping their ballots in a drop box. Credit: Diane Rado

Election reforms that proponents say make a great system better — but which critics call targeted voter suppression – passed the Republican-controlled Florida Senate Monday over strenuous Democratic objections.

A similar but different version of the reform package is still pending in the House of Representatives. To become law, the two must be made identical and forwarded to Gov. Ron DeSantis for final review.

Florida’s supervisors of elections, Black Voters Matter, the League of Women Voters of Florida and numerous other voting-rights and civil-rights groups oppose all the reforms, saying they create needless obstacles to voting and make elections harder and more expensive to conduct.

Senate Bill 90, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Republican representing parts of Sumter, Lake and Marion counties, would impose new rules curbing the use of ballot drop boxes to collect mail-in ballots, limit who can pick up or deliver another voter’s ballot on his or her behalf, and generally make it easy to run afoul of rules that allow voters to vote by mail — forcing them to vote in person on Election Day or not vote at all.

Sen. Lori Berman, a Palm Beach Democrat, said SB 90 and similar voting reforms being pushed by Republican lawmakers across the nation are designed to impugn mail-in voting practices that helped voters vote safely during the coronavirus pandemic -– practices used more in 2020 by Democrats than by Republicans.

She reminded senators that Florida was widely commended for the exemplary way it conducted its 2020 elections, in which 11 million votes were cast in a variety of ways.

“So why are we looking at this bill now, despite this flawless election?” Berman asked. “We’re looking at this because It’s based on the ‘Big Lie’ and the discredited claim that the 2020 election was rigged. There is no evidence of fraud.”

Berman was referring, of course, to former President Donald Trump’s assertion, dismissed in more than 60 courts across the country, that he was defeated for re-election due to election fraud. He insisted the election was “stolen” from him, fueling anger that culminated in the Jan. 6 insurrectionist attack on the nation’s Capitol.

Sen. Joe Gruters, a southwest Florida senator and chair of the Republican Party of Florida, argued that Baxley’s bill simply makes rules tighter to ensure no one can usurp them. He made no mention of opposition to the bill from Florida’s 67 election supervisors.

“This does nothing to suppress the vote,” Gruters said. “What we’re trying to do is make sure that we preserve our sacred duty and right of having every vote count.”

Sen. Perry Thurston, a Broward Democrat, said the reform bill brings to mind now-discarded laws from years when white supremacists made voting difficult and/or dangerous for Black voters.

“That’s our sordid history, that’s Florida’s sordid history, so when we say we want to make changes to individuals’ right to vote, I can tell you that the people who were deprived of that right for the longest time, they take that personally,” Thurston said.

“Why do we ever want to make it more difficult for anybody to vote? That answer should be never.

“We should never say we want to discourage anyone from voting. We should always be encouraging them to vote. This legislation … will not encourage one person in the state of Florida to vote. It will not. And it will deprive individuals of their opportunity to vote.”

“This is serious business,” Thurston said in conclusion. “It’s the modern-day version of voter suppression in Florida.”