Increased burdens on voter-registration groups, higher fines are features
BY: MITCH PERRY - APRIL 4, 2023 7:48 PM
Florida Republicans have dropped a proposal into the state Legislature that would erect even more barriers to voter-registration drives and use of mail-in ballots, along with steeper fines for registration groups that make any wrong steps and the potential that voters could see their ballots trashed.
The proposal (SB 7050) reduces the number of days a third-party voter-registration organization has to deliver an application to 10 days, and any day after that they would be fined $50 per each day it is late, up to a maximum of $2,500.
For each application delivered after book-closing, meaning the deadline to register in advance of any election, the groups would be fined $100 per each day late, up to a maximum of $5,000.
Under existing law, those groups are fined $50 for each application delivered to the division of elections more than 14 days after it was submitted to the third-party organization, and $100 if submitted after book closing.
There’s more: These groups must provide a receipt to each applicant upon accepting possession of the application. And the groups would have to re-register with the state for every single election cycle.
Plus, the bill would require all first-time Florida voters who have never been issued a current and valid Florida driver license or a voter ID card or a Social Security number to vote in person the first time.
That is a concern for college students like Jayden D’Onofrio, with the group Florida Voters of Tomorrow, an 18-year-old high school senior from Broward County. He said during a Senate committee hearing that the restrictions on having a voter ID or driver license would affect “thousands of voters.”
Voting rights groups objected strongly to these provisions.
“It does seem extremely punitive to the third-party voter organizations,” said Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. “The League is one, and we’ve trained many others. They’ve come to us and said that they can’t bear the burden that the state is unfairly putting on them with these increased fines.”
“This bill is not a recipe for a well-run election,” said Amy Keith, program director with Common Cause Florida. “It severely reduces access to … third-party voting registration organizations who have long assisted with voter registration in lower-income and marginalized communities.”
The 98-page committee bill was not published until 2:09 p.m. on Monday, less than 24 hours before it was to be heard for the first time — nearly halfway through the 60-day legislative session.
“Prudence” was the reason for the delay in producing the election package, said Danny Burgess, the Republican representing parts of Hillsborough and Pasco counties who’s sponsoring the measure. But he stressed that there’s plenty of time to improve the bill.
”We’re on day 29 and we do have over halfway to still be able to go through session with multiple stops,” he explained. “We really want to make sure to get this bill right.”
Regarding the new registration requirements, Burgess said the reason for the increased penalties is that these groups are acting as a “fiduciary” for the voter, and called them “measured changes.”
In 2022, the Office of Election Crimes and Security reviewed more than 3,000 voter registration applications that were submitted after the registration date expired, amounting to assessed fines of over $41,000, Burgess said.
As for the ID requirement, Burgess said it would actually only affect a “really small pool of people” since, as long as they have a Social Security number, they should be good to vote.
There are a lot of “list maintenance” measures in the bill, such as regarding vote-by-mail ballots.
Currently, if multiple vote-by-mail ballots are returned in one envelope (say, a couple who put their ballots in one envelope instead of separate envelopes as required), it is up to the county canvassing board to handle those situations. The new proposal specifies that if two or more vote-by-mail ballots are returned in one mailing envelope for the same election, neither ballot should be counted.
The bill puts the responsibility on voters whether they’re legally eligible to vote. When Gov. Ron DeSantis’ elections crimes unit arrested more than a dozen people for voting illegally last summer because they had convictions for murder or sexual offenses, some of those voters said they thought they were eligible because they had been issued voter ID cards. The new language states that voter information cards must contain a “specified statement that the card is proof of registration but is not legal verification of eligibility.”
“This bill overshadows the apparent obligation of authorities like the supervisors of elections and secretary of state to tell people whether they are or are not legally eligible to vote, by placing the onus on the voter to make that difficult determination amongst our state’s labyrinthine of eligibility laws,” said Jonathan Webber, Florida policy director with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “For many in Florida, voting will now be a roll of the dice. How many will ask themselves is it worth it and decide to stay home.”
Jasmine Burney-Clark is the founder of Equal Ground, a Black-led voting rights organization. She said the new bill follows a series of voter-suppression bills passed by the Florida Legislature over the past two decades.
“In 2018, 1.8 million returning citizens through a citizens ballot initiative were given the right to automatic rights restoration, and in 2019 a poll-tax was implemented by the Legislature. In 2020, Black voters utilized drop boxes at a rate of 8.4% higher than previous elections and in 2021 the Legislature passed SB 90 limiting the use of drop boxes,” she said
“Here we are in 2023 and this Legislature is introducing another voter suppression bill. Voter suppression impacts everyone, including your own base,” she said.
Burgess strongly denied that was the intention of the bill. “To me it sounds like some are against the bill they feared it would be, and not the bill that is actually before us,” he said.
Broward and Palm Beach County Democrat Tina Polsky said the bill isn’t making it easier for anyone to vote.
“With regard to third-party organizations, each year we make it harder and harder for them to operate and they do help people in lower-income groups and out there in communities,” she said, adding that she was “disappointed and embarrassed” about how the bill was presented to the Legislature and the public this week.
The bill was apparently so rushed that it has yet to be assigned to any other Senate committees. Nor is there an equivalent bill filed in the Florida House. Nevertheless, it passed on party lines in the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee. It is not known where it will land next in committee.