The GOP-controlled Florida Legislature Thursday evening approved a package of election reforms that critics say are not needed following a widely commended 2020 election, but which proponents say will ensure election integrity.
Voting rights and civil rights advocates, Democratic lawmakers and elections supervisors denounced the legislation as voter suppression.
The controversial bill, which passed 77 to 40 in the state House, now goes to Gov. Ron DeSantis for final review. Democrats hoping to derail the bill did most of the talking Thursday. For Republicans, it was pretty much a done deal.
“We did have a great election, but why should we be satisfied there?” said Sen. Travis Hutson, a northeast Florida Republican who drove the bill home in the Senate earlier Thursday. “I believe that every legal vote should count. I believe one fraudulent vote is one too many, and I’m trying to protect the sanctity of our elections.”
After going through at least four major rewrites, the final version retains some of its original pillars: limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, limiting who can help pick up or deliver a voter’s mail-in ballot on his or her behalf, and adding myriad new rules on requesting a ballot by mail, signature verification, collecting ballots, counting ballots, observing the counting of ballots, reporting results and challenging results.
Along the way, there were some changes. For example, the GOP Senate sponsor initially wanted to eliminate all ballot drop boxes. But that was rescinded after critics testified against the measure.
Along with curbing voting by mail, lawmakers inserted language to expand the governor’s ability to fill vacancies on certain local elected boards.
“This is a power grab,” said Broward Democrat and House Democratic Leader Bobby DuBose.
Rep. Joseph Geller, a Broward-Dade Democrat, agreed the bill will expand DeSantis’ power, and he argued that the hasty conclusion of the complicated, amended and re-amended election-reform bill at 9 p.m. on the penultimate day of the 2021 session attests to that.
“It’s a hodge-podge. We barely know what it is,” Geller said.
Earlier Thursday, when the Senate voted on the bill, Sen. Tina Polsky, a Palm Beach Democrat, and others said outright what critics have been saying for weeks: that the GOP-pushed voting reforms are chiefly designed to suppress Democratic votes, especially minority votes. In the 2020 elections, Florida Democrats voted by mail in greater numbers during the coronavirus pandemic than did Republican voters.
“For the first time, the Democrats outvoted the Republicans in vote-by-mail. So what’s the first thing we did? Restrict vote-by-mail. We can’t help but be cynical,” Polsky said.
Florida supervisors of election testified in opposition to all of the voting-reform bills as they moved through House and Senate committees this session. Not only were their recommendations ignored, but they now face a $25,000 fine if they fail to administer the new ballot drop-box rules to the letter.
The League of Women Voters of Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, and the Fair Elections Center reacted swiftly to the final vote on the bill, all denouncing it and calling on DeSantis to veto it.
League of Women Voters President Patricia Brigham called it a “terrible piece of legislation.”
“The bill’s sweeping changes will undoubtedly make it harder for Floridians to cast their ballot, with a disproportionate impact on elderly voters, voters with disabilities, students and communities of color,” Brigham wrote in a statement. “Since the start of the 2021 legislative session, the League has cautioned legislators that making these types of changes to our election process will have consequential impacts on voters. Not only has a detrimental piece of legislation passed, but it was done in an undemocratic way, and the public’s voice was silenced.”
The election reform bills were sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, a north-central Florida Republican, and Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a Hernando County Republican.