‘Suppression’ or ‘security’? Uproar over Florida GOP’s ‘rollback of voting rights’
TALLAHASSEE - Four months ago, Gov. Ron DeSantis bragged that other states should emulate voting procedures in Florida, where former President Donald Trump’s solid Election Day victory over President Joe Biden was done and dusted long before midnight.
But the Republican governor, who will be on the ballot next year, and GOP legislative leaders are pushing changes to the state’s election process that Democrats are branding as “voter suppression,” county election officials “vehemently” oppose and experts say will “disproportionately” harm Black and Hispanic voters. “I have heard of no supervisors who are in support of this bill,” Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley told a Senate committee last week, before the Republican-controlled panel approved a measure that would make wide-ranging changes to voting by mail. State GOP leaders’ push to amend the elections process mimics efforts underway in other Republican-led states following Trump’s re-election defeat in November. Trump and his followers have repeatedly alleged that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen,” a claim without merit. The proposed voting changes, which come after millions of voters in Florida and throughout the country opted to cast mail-in ballots amid the COVID-19 pandemic, are causing alarm for elections experts as well as Democrats. “I don’t say this lightly. We are witnessing the greatest rollback of voting rights in this country since the Jim Crow era,” University of Florida political science professor Michael McDonald tweeted last month. State legislatures throughout the nation are seeing “a tidal wave of voter suppression efforts,” Eliza Sweren-Becker, voting rights and elections counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, told The News Service of Florida in a phone interview. The Florida Senate proposal (SB 90), sponsored by Ocala Republican Dennis Baxley, would require voters to request mail-in ballots more frequently, ban the use of drop boxes for voters to turn in ballots and allow only “immediate” family members to collect and deliver ballots to and from voters. DeSantis, a close ally of Trump, called last month for voting-law revisions, arguing that, despite a hiccup-free election in November, the state can’t “rest on our laurels”. Republicans have relied heavily on the state’s no-excuse vote-by-mail process as the GOP has controlled the Legislature, almost all statewide offices and a majority of congressional seats over the past two decades. But as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths began to spike last year in Florida and elsewhere, Democrats and left-leaning groups urged voters to cast ballots by mail. Election supervisors in Florida also encouraged the use of mail-in ballots in advance of the November election, and the numbers of mail-in ballots skyrocketed. Under current state law, a voter’s request for a mail-in ballot is active for two general elections, which occur every two years. The Senate measure, if passed, would wipe out all current requests and require voters to ask for ballots if they want to vote by mail in next year’s election. The measure would require voters to request mail-in ballots prior to every general election. Trump has frequently voted by mail, but the former president and his allies have asserted that mail-in ballots are vulnerable to fraud. Experts, including federal and state officials, say no evidence of widespread wrongdoing exists. State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a Spring Hill Republican who shepherded a 2019 elections package through the House, acknowledged that Florida’s 2020 elections ran smoothly. But lawmakers “should never miss an opportunity to make a good thing even better,” he told the News Service on Monday. Jasmine Burney-Clark, the founder of Equal Ground Education Fund, said erasing current mail-in ballot requests and requiring voters to resubmit them will serve as a boon to the GOP next year. After Trump raised questions about voting by mail and urged voters to cast their ballots in person, “there was a mass departure” from mail-in ballots by Republicans, she said. “Because their folks are not going to automatically receive a vote-by-mail ballot next year … let’s just flip and remove everyone off the sign-up and require everyone to sign back up so they’re starting from the same playing field. Actually that isn’t the same playing field. It’s just creating a hurdle,” said Burney-Clark, whose organization focused on Black voter turnout in Orange, Pinellas, Seminole and Volusia counties last year. The proposed revamp of Florida’s voting procedures is a stark contrast to an elections and ethics measure approved by the Democrat-led U.S. House this month. The “For the People Act,” however, remains a long shot in the U.S. Senate, where Republicans oppose the proposal. Back at the states’ level, “the vast, vast, vast majority” of efforts to curtail voting rights are coming from Republicans, Sweren-Becker said. “It appears that there’s a view that it’s more advantageous to limit the electorate and make it harder for people to vote than it is to go out and win votes and persuade people to your positions,” she added. “The rationale for these policies is so thoroughly debunked.”