Florida’s legislature on Thursday night became the latest to approve far-reaching legislation imposing new rules on voting and new penalties for those who do not follow them, passing a measure critics said would make it harder for millions of voters to cast ballots in the Sunshine State.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, who named voting security one of his top legislative priorities this year, is widely expected to sign the bill in coming weeks.
Like similar bills Republicans are pushing in dozens of state legislatures across the country, the Florida measure adds hurdles to voting by mail, restricts the use of drop boxes and prohibits any actions that could influence those standing in line to vote, which voting rights advocates said is likely to discourage nonpartisan groups from offering food or water to voters as they wait in the hot Florida sun.
The passage of the bill was preceded by an hour of emotional debate, as Black lawmakers stood up to decry a measure they said was aimed squarely at curbing the clout of voters of color.
“You are making policies that are detrimental to our communities,” said an emotional Rep. Angela Nixon, a Democrat, describing herself as “distraught and disheartened.”
Both Democrats and Republicans, including DeSantis, hailed Florida’s administration of the November 2020 election as a model for the nation. Former president Donald Trump won the state by more than three points.
Nevertheless, DeSantis has said new restrictions are needed to shore up election security.
Democrats and voting rights advocates counter that the new measure is instead aimed at making it harder for some Floridians to cast ballots — and to appease constituents who believe Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen.
“The governor praised Florida’s election performance as the gold standard, then he quickly pivoted to the national narrative, claiming without evidence that there was fraud and voting irregularities that would plague the state without these changes,” state Sen. Janet Cruz, a Democrat from Tampa, said in an interview this week. “If you can’t win by promoting the best candidate, you win by making it harder for the other side to vote.”
Cruz and other critics said the bill curtails poll access in a variety of ways that will intimidate, confuse and otherwise make it harder for people to vote by mail, which is popular in Florida. In November, more than 4.8 million Floridians — more than 40% of the fall electorate — cast mail ballots.
The new hurdles will probably produce longer lines during both early in-person and Election Day voting, she and others said.
The law’s top two GOP proponents, Rep. Blaise Ingoglia and Sen. Joe Gruters, did not respond to requests for interviews. But in committee hearings and floor debate, numerous Republicans defended the measure as necessary to ensure the integrity of elections.
“Why wouldn’t you want to do that?” Rep. Thomas J. Leek said during House debate Wednesday. “I’ve heard repeatedly that we’re trying to fix something that is not broken. But I guarantee you those same people who are making that argument today would come back in 2022 when the system breaks and complain that we didn’t anticipate things that we should have anticipated. This bill fixes those things.”
In February, DeSantis hailed “the most transparent and efficient election anywhere in the country” — but in the same speech, he said more restrictions on mail voting were needed to “stay ahead of the curve.” DeSantis is a close ally of Trump, who spent much of 2020 deriding mail voting as rife with fraud.
The Florida bill makes it harder to use drop boxes to deposit mail ballots, a voting method that was widely embraced last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The legislation prohibits mobile drop boxes, and it requires local election supervisors to staff all drop boxes and to allow ballots to be dropped in them only during early-voting hours. Supervisors who leave a drop box accessible outside those hours are subject to a civil penalty of $25,000. The state’s association of county election supervisors opposes the law.
The bill also limits who may turn in a voter’s ballot, allowing only certain family members to do so or limiting individuals to turning in the ballots of just two nonfamily members.
Voting rights groups said the provisions are unnecessary and could suppress turnout.
“You could go down the street to a mailbox and put that ballot with a stamp in the mail, and there’s no one standing there asking you for identification,” said Patti Brigham, president of the Florida League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan voting rights group, who added that officials have uncovered no evidence of the kind of ballot collection, or “harvesting,” that Republicans say they are trying to prevent. “That’s ridiculous. And it’s voter intimidation.”
Florida’s legislation comes after Georgia Republicans passed an extensive overhaul of that state’s voting rules, a measure that quickly emerged as a flash point in a state with a long history of disenfranchising voters of color. In Texas, GOP lawmakers have proposed bills that take aim at new means of voting embraced in cities such as Houston last year.
The restrictions proposed by Florida Republicans drew sharp criticism from Black lawmakers there, who rose one after another during a House debate Wednesday to condemn the legislation.
They said the bill would make voting particularly difficult for minorities, who more often struggle with transportation and work nonstandard hours in the service sector in Florida’s tourism-dependent economy, relying more heavily on after-hours drop boxes.
The additional barriers made it hard not to conclude that the law is intended to suppress the vote, they said — an ugly reminder of Florida’s embrace of Jim Crow laws in the 20th century.
“It’s a sad day for me personally because people like me, not too long ago, in recent history, were not able to vote,” said Rep. Geraldine Thompson, a Democrat.
“I grew up in the South,” said Thompson, who is 72. “When I look at my birth certificate, under race, I’m listed as Colored. And when I went to school, all of my school records showed that I was Negro.”
Thompson told a rapt House chamber of a lynching in Orange County, her current home, in 1920. The victim, a prominent Black businessman named Julius “July” Perry, tried to vote in the local election and was told he had not paid his poll taxes. A mob abducted him from his home in front of his wife and children, hanged him and used his body for target practice.
Thompson also invoked the memory of civil rights leaders Harry Moore and his wife, Harriet, who founded a branch of the NAACP in Brevard County. The two died after a bomb was planted under their home on Dec. 25, 1951, and after both were driven to a hospital 30 miles away because one closer refused to treat them.
“On behalf of July Perry, who wanted to vote in 1920, on behalf of Harry T. Moore, who was killed on Christmas night in 1951, on behalf of his wife, Harriet, who died nine days later — vote this bill down,” Thompson said, eliciting thunderous applause from her Democratic colleagues.
While much of the criticism of Senate Bill 90 comes from voting rights advocates who believe it will disproportionately affect communities of color, some Republicans are worried that it will make it harder for their voters to cast ballots, too — particularly the millions of Floridians who have voted by mail for many years.
One provision in particular has Republicans and Democrats alike confounded. It requires voters to reapply for mail ballots every two-year election cycle, rather than every two cycles, or four years, as current law allows.
Members of both parties said the provision will confuse voters who think they’re due to receive an absentee ballot automatically — and is likely to suppress turnout in off-year municipal elections, when voters on the request list automatically receive ballots. In federal elections, it could also put added pressure on in-person voting, resulting in long lines.
“Quite honestly, it’s one of the safest and most effective ways to vote,” said one frustrated former state GOP operative, who believes restrictions on mail voting are not good for either party and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to criticize the strategy. “This is really going to hurt Republicans, especially with seniors and the military.”
One constituency absent from the debate in Tallahassee is the business sector, which in both Georgia and Texas weighed in to oppose voter restrictions. There has been less of that in Florida, both Republicans and Democrats said, because the business groups are largely aligned with the GOP on regulatory and tax issues, and many of the leading businesses rely on tourist-heavy customer bases who aren’t exerting any pressure.
“You would have to believe that people would stop coming to Florida because Republicans are suppressing the vote,” said state Rep. Omari Hardy, a Democrat from Lake Worth. “I don’t think the business community has made that calculation.”