POLITICS

Florida Governor Signs Bill Restricting Voting Rights

Republican Ron DeSantis signed into law legislation that significantly restricts voter access to mail-in ballots and drop boxes.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday signed into law a set of provisions that follows Georgia’s lead in restricting voting rights.

The new law comes after the Republican-led Florida Legislature passed SB90, which includes several voter suppression initiatives. The state Senate voted mostly along party lines to approve the bill, and the House then passed its amended version, also along party lines. The final version of the bill was then sent to the Republican governor, who advocated for the legislation before it even arrived on his desk.

The bill criminalizes giving food and water to voters in line, requires voters to show identification before casting their ballot and allows partisan poll-watchers during ballot counting to challenge every ballot to which they have a “reasonable objection.”

“The number of people we’re talking about that would be allowed to get in and be in very close proximity to the ballot duplication process I think presents very grave security risks for many offices,” Leon County Elections Supervisor Mark Early testified before the legislature.

But the most significant changes to the state’s voting rights affect mail-in ballots and drop boxes, which 1.5 million Floridians used in November.

The bill significantly restricts the number of ballot drop boxes and where they can be placed, and limits it who exactly can collect and drop off mail-in ballots. Drop boxes were previously widely accessible in Florida, with many of them available 24 hours a day under security surveillance. Drop boxes now are required to be staffed with an election worker at all times. 

Voters would also be required to request a mail-in ballot for every election cycle. Previously it was every two election cycles. It also adds ID and signature requirements in order to obtain a mail-in ballot, when no such mandates existed before.

The law also undermines voter registration efforts by requiring that third-party voter registration groups must notify the voters they collect applications from that they may not return their registration application on time, even though they are legally required to do so. Such groups, which help people obtain an absentee ballot request through an easier process, say the provision is designed to confuse voters.

Florida Republicans have long used mail-in voting, sending absentee ballot request forms ever since the 2000 election cycle to all registered Republicans so that the party can increase turnout among rural and elderly voters. On the campaign trail ahead of the November election, then-President Donald Trump told his supporters to avoid mail-in voting across the country, except for Florida, which he tweeted was “Safe and Secure, Tried and True.”

According to a 2020 poll from State Innovative Exchange, 70% of Florida voters supported using drop boxes for elections. A 2021 Secure Democracy poll, which oversampled Republicans, found that 77% of Floridians wanted drop boxes to be both secure and accessible.

Trump voted by mail in Florida, as did DeSantis, who has cast a mail-in ballot in six out of seven elections from 2016 to 2020. But 2020’s election cycle was the first time in Florida’s history that the state’s Democrats were the majority of mail-in voters, with 680,000 more absentee ballots than Republicans. About 43% of Florida’s 4.7 million residents voted by mail, with Democrats accounting for 45% of those mail-in votes.

In 2020, voting by mail doubled among Black voters ― the largest increase among any demographic. The number of Black Floridians who cast mail-in ballots last year increased to more than 500,000 from 2016 and 2018. Black voters also cast 11.4% of all of Florida’s vote-by-mail ballots in 2020, compared with 8.9% in 2016, according to All Voting Is Local.

Though Republicans allege that the law provides “guardrails” against election fraud (which there is no evidence of in November’s election), Democrats have likened the voter suppression tactics to those from the Jim Crow era. 

“We’re actively trying to suppress people’s right to vote,” Democratic state Rep. Michele Rayner, who tried to introduce a bill to automatically register people to vote, said Wednesday on the House floor. “Like a broken record this session, we are hearing bills that no one asked for. And this bill … was filed after we had the smoothest and safest election we’ve ever had. That’s what y’all told us.

“The bottom line is this: If you think you need to engage in voter suppression tactics to win reelections and elections, you shouldn’t be in this building making laws.”

Florida’s law is part of a GOP-led effort across the country to restrict voting access at the level after record Democratic turnout. The law echoes Georgia’s legislation, which made headlines in March for its extremely restrictive anti-voting provisions. Critics have called out the state for its law that will disproportionately affect Black, brown, low-income, elderly and disabled Georgians.

A tally by the Brennan Center for Justice found that as of March 24, lawmakers had introduced at least 361 bills with anti-voting provisions in 47 states. Those efforts have been expedited in the past month as state legislatures finish up their sessions. Florida is the seventh GOP-led state to enact new voting restrictions this year, alongside Georgia, Arizona, Texas, Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.

Congress is currently debating the passage of the For the People Act, which would reform voting rights, campaign financing, redistricting and ethics. It would also attempt to reverse Republicans’ efforts at the state level by federally mandating no-excuse absentee voting and same-day registration, among other initiatives.