MIAMI – Republicans in the Florida legislature on Thursday passed an election overhaul bill that is expected to usher in a slew of voting restrictions in one of the nation’s most critical battlefield states, adding to national pressure from GOP state lawmakers to reduce access to the vote.
The bill makes Florida the first big swing state won by former President Donald J. Trump to pass significant voting limits and reflects Republicans’ determination to reshape electoral systems, even in states where they have been. ascendants. Mr Trump carried the state by more than three percentage points last year, other Republicans also performed well, and the party has raised new hopes about its ability to attract Latino voters.
But Florida Republicans argued its election needed to be safer, despite the fact that the vote went smoothly in 2020 and arguments from Democrats and voting experts that some of the new measures would affect the way. disproportionate voters of color. Now the state is on the verge of weakening key pieces of a vast voting infrastructure that was slowly built after the chaotic state election of 2000 and which was quickly expanded last year due to of the coronavirus pandemic.
The new bill would limit the use of drop boxes; add more identification requirements for those requesting postal ballots; requiring voters to request a mail ballot for each election, rather than receiving them automatically through a mail ballot list; limit who could collect and deposit the ballots; and make partisan observers more accountable during the counting process. The law would also expand a current rule that prohibits outside groups from providing items “with the intent to influence” voters within 150 feet of a polling station.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has indicated his support for the overhaul of the vote and is expected to sign it. The bill was passed widely by party vote in both houses, 77 to 40 in the House and 23 to 17 in the Senate, although a Republican state senator, Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, had voted against.
The legislation follows a similar law recently passed by Georgia and comes as Texas, Arizona and other Republican-led states pursue limits on access to the ballot. GOP lawmakers have been fueled by a party base that has largely endorsed Mr. Trump’s false allegations of widespread voter fraud and stolen elections in 2020. In Florida, Republican lawmakers have promoted the all-vote bill. providing little evidence of fraud problems, and despite their persistent claims that the 2020 state elections were the “gold standard” for the country.
“There was no problem in Florida,” said Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy advisor for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. “Everything worked as it should. The only reason they are doing this is to make it more difficult to vote. “
Once the bill is enacted, Florida will become the first state to create new voting barriers after businesses across the country embark on a campaign of public pressure to oppose such measures. Big business, after speaking out against voting bills in states like Georgia and Texas, has remained largely silent on the Republican push in Florida.
Above the Florida debate on the bill was the state’s strong and unusually popular tradition of postal voting – and a recent change in which the party has benefited the most.
In the 2016 and 2018 elections, about a third of the state’s voters voted by mail. And in the two years, more Republicans than Democrats voted by mail.
But in 2020, more than 2.1 million Democrats voted by mail, compared with an estimated 1.4 million Republicans, largely due to a Democratic push to vote remotely amid the pandemic and mock attacks by Mr. Trump against the practice. (The former president and his family, however, voted by mail in Florida in the June 2020 primaries.)
Given this history in Florida, his bill will act as a one-time test of the Republican national push to reduce access to voting, particularly postal and postal voting. And the GOP effort comes with risks: Was the Democratic surge in postal voting a sign of a new normal for the previously Republican-dominated voting method, or a failure caused by the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic?
The legislation has already become a sort of political balance, as State Republicans attempt to appease a base pro-Trump and greedy for new voting limits without hurting the party’s turnout. In 2022, the state is set to once again become a renowned political battleground as Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Mr DeSantis seek re-election.
Democrats in the Legislature have grasped the Republicans’ rationale for the bill.
“So what is the problem that we are trying to solve?” Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democratic representative from Orlando, asked rhetorically. “Oh, here’s the thing: Florida Democrats cast an additional 600,000 mail-in votes.”
But Republicans defended the bill, saying it was popular with “our voters” and noting that Florida’s voting options were still much more extensive than in other states. Florida will still have the absentee vote without excuse and will require at least eight days of early voting.
“If the opposition says we are creating barriers to voting, those barriers already exist in other states,” said Blaise Ingoglia, a republican state representative from Hernando County, who helped promote the project. of law. “But we never hear a glance from the opposition about these laws.”
Other Republican lawmakers echoed the language used by Mr. Trump and his allies in their challenge to the 2020 election.
“I believe every legal vote should count,” said Travis Hutson, a Republican senator from Northeast Florida. “I believe that a fraudulent vote is one too many votes. And I try to protect the sanctity of our elections. “
Data requested by lawmakers themselves suggested that legislation was hardly needed. The Republican-led Committee for Public Integrity and House Elections interviewed the state’s 67 election supervisors in February, asking them about past elections. Almost all of the supervisors responded and said that over the past four years they had reported very few cases of possible fraud – one of the reasons lawmakers gave for pushing legislation – and that most of their boxes depots were already under surveillance, either physical or video surveillance, according to public records.
“It seems the Legislature is ignoring – I would say it is deliberately ignoring – the facts it has in its possession,” said Stephen F. Rosenthal of Miami, who is part of a group of Democratic lawyers who requested the records. The group also questioned elected prosecutors about voter fraud, finding a minuscule number of prosecuted cases.
Responses from supervisors to the House committee also revealed that election supervisors received millions of dollars in grants from outside organizations in 2019 and 2020. This money will now be banned, with no obvious substitutes going forward.
Republicans, when pressed for details of any reported fraud that would result in the need for the bill, have often objected.
“I don’t know, but I’m sure it was happening,” Ingoglia replied to a question in the House about any reported cases of illegal ballot collection. “Just because they weren’t captured doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t happen.”
The bill has not been without criticism from notable Republicans inside and outside the Legislature. D. Alan Hays, a Tory Republican who previously served in the State Senate for 12 years and is now the Lake County Election Supervisor, told his former colleagues at a legislative hearing last month that their bill was a “travesty”.
The new bill is likely to face legal challenges from Democrats; Hours after Gov. Brian Kemp signed Georgia’s voting bill, a coalition of Democrats and civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit challenging its legality.
Democrats in the Florida legislature have focused heavily on the bill’s potential impact on communities of color.
“Typically, in communities of color, households are very diverse,” said state representative Bobby DuBose, the minority leader, challenging the restriction that a person could only collect two ballots. by mail to other voters to bring and drop off at a polling location. “And so if the intention was to add two – and in many households there are more than two – why number two and why not go beyond two if your intention was to open? access to the vote? “
Mr Ingoglia said he believed it was enough to allow two ballots per person, but Democrats disagreed, equating the rule with racial discrimination laws of the past. Time and time again they have presented the bill as a solution in search of a problem.
A Democratic representative, Fentrice Driskell of Tampa, presented the debate as similar to the hunt for chupacabra, the mythical, nightmarish beast that engulfs mammals and sucks goat blood.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have no proof for you on chupacabra, and I have no proof for you regarding the harvest of the ballots,” Ms Driskell said. “But what I can tell you is this: that our system worked well in 2020, everyone agreed, and everyone agreed. And that for so many reasons we do not need this bad bill.