DeSantis signs voting bill before pro-Trump audience. Election supervisors concerned

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During a nationally televised event hosted by a fan club of former President Donald Trump, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday signed into law contentious and wide-ranging changes to the state’s voting system, including provisions targeting voting by mail and limiting the use of ballot drop boxes.

Highlighting the sharply partisan debate surrounding Senate Bill 90, passed by state lawmakers last week, DeSantis barred Florida reporters from attending the event held in West Palm Beach before the group Club 45 USA. Fox News was granted exclusive access.

“We’re not resting on our laurels and me signing this bill here says, ‘Florida your vote counts,’ ” DeSantis told the hosts of “Fox & Friends” as supporters and lawmakers cheered behind him. “Your vote is going to be passed with integrity and transparency.”

The announcement was quickly condemned by Democrats, who pointed out the partisan setting. Multiple voting rights groups announced they were filing lawsuits against the state on the grounds the new law was unconstitutional.

“This morning’s showboat for-FOX News-only bill signing effectively clenched Republicans’ grip on our state’s election system, enacting oppressive measures to restrict voter access and empower partisan poll watchers,” said Florida Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation.

Fox News also clarified in a statement after the event that it did not know the event was a bill signing, and it said that neither the network nor the “Fox & Friends” show “requested or mandated the event be exclusive to FOX News Media entities.”

Senate Bill 90, passed by the Legislature along party lines last week, takes effect immediately, with dozens of changes to the state’s voting laws.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis leaves the site of an appearance, Thursday, May 6, 2021, in West Palm Beach, where he signed a sweeping elections bill into law. The event was closed to the news media except for Fox News.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis leaves the site of an appearance, Thursday, May 6, 2021, in West Palm Beach, where he signed a sweeping elections bill into law. The event was closed to the news media except for Fox News.

Election supervisors are wary

Most of the changes are administrative, but election supervisors warned last week that the bill makes it harder to request and return vote-by-mail ballots:

Floridians now have to give a driver’s license number, state ID number or the last four digits of their Social Security number to request a vote-by-mail ballot.

Requests for mail ballots also don’t last as long. Instead of requesting a ballot through the next two general elections — the next four years — requests are limited to the next general election — or two years. (Current requests are grandfathered in.)

Drop boxes are limited to early voting days and hours unless the drop box is located at an election supervisor’s office, and the boxes must be physically manned while in use. Relying on remote video surveillance isn’t allowed.

Speaking on behalf of the organization that represents the election supervisors for Florida’s 67 counties, Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer said last week the call for election reform was “unnecessary” considering the state’s success in the 2020 election.

Florida was spared contentious recounts and allegations of widespread voter fraud levied by Trump last year.

“Elections ran smoothly, voters participated in record numbers, and election results were verified with audits in every county in Florida,” Latimer said in a statement last week.

A partisan divide

Senate Bill 90 had been hotly debated during the two months of legislative session, with Democrats accusing Republicans of trying to suppress the vote and appease Trump’s unfounded accusations of fraud.

After Georgia lawmakers faced a backlash from corporations and Major League Baseball over the state’s own attempt to pass new, restrictive election laws, Florida Republicans heavily watered down their own bill. They abandoned proposals to ban the use of drop boxes and to impose strict signature-matching requirements that could have caused millions of Floridians to update their signatures on file with their county elections office.

Republican lawmakers said the end result was a bill with reasonable measures to tighten up the state’s vote-by-mail laws by cracking down on fraud.

DeSantis on Thursday highlighted one provision in the bill, which bans anyone from possessing more than two vote-by-mail ballots, other than those belonging to family members. Miami-Dade County made that illegal years ago in an effort to stop “ballot harvesting,” which involves candidates and operatives collecting ballots at voters’ homes, and in many cases, illegally pressuring voters.

“We’re not going to let political operatives go and get satchels of votes and dump them in some drop box,” DeSantis said.

While the state has a long history of vote-by-mail fraud in local races, Republicans removed the harvesting ban in 2001. A 2012 statewide grand jury urged lawmakers to ban it again, but lawmakers had taken no action on the topic until this year.

“All 50 states should ban ballot harvesting, and they should have done it yesterday,” said Jason Snead, executive director the Honest Elections Project, a new conservative-leaning voting group. “That includes Florida.”

Snead and Republicans have noted that Florida still has more accessible voting laws than Democratic-controlled states. For instance, Florida does not require an excuse to vote by mail, unlike New York.

But the decision to target the state’s voting laws after the 2020 election, when Democrats outvoted Republicans by mail for the first time and even GOP officials such as DeSantis said the polls had run smoothly, has Democratic lawmakers skeptical of the motivations behind the changes. The state is also fresh off of years of debate and litigation over the voting rights for people with felony convictions.

Ultimate impact is unclear

Just how many people could be prevented from voting under the law is not clear, however.

Data from county supervisors collected by All Voting is Local, a nonpartisan voting rights group, does not show whether minority voters tended to use drop boxes more than other groups.

It’s also not clear how many Floridians would be prohibited from requesting vote-by-mail ballots because they don’t have a driver’s license, state ID or a Social Security number, although Brad Ashwell, the Florida state director of All Voting is Local, said such laws have a history of affecting minority voters.

“Study after study have shown they have a disproportionate impact on Black voters and other minority voters,” Ashwell said.

Moments after DeSantis signed the bill, the League of Women Voters and other groups filed a federal lawsuit against Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, a DeSantis appointee who oversees the elections system, and county elections supervisors. The lawsuit alleges the bill violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The NAACP also filed a lawsuit against Lee.

The League of Women Voters’ complaint, echoing concerns by Democrats, said the bill “appears to ban anyone except election workers from giving food or drink, including water, to voters waiting in line to vote.”

The bill does not explicitly prohibit anyone from giving water, food or other non-electioneering-related items to voters waiting in line. Soliciting voters within 150 feet of a polling place was already illegal under state law.

Rather, the bill clarifies the definition of “solicitation” to include “engaging in any activity with the intent to influence or effect of influencing a voter.” And it extends the “no-solicitation zone” to the 150 feet around ballot drop boxes.

Poll worker Justin Villalonga accepts a mail-in ballot from a voter at the North Dade Regional library in Miami Gardens during the first day of early voting, Oct. 19, 2020. Many voters drove and walked to the site to deposit ballots in drop boxes behind the library.
Poll worker Justin Villalonga accepts a mail-in ballot from a voter at the North Dade Regional library in Miami Gardens during the first day of early voting, Oct. 19, 2020. Many voters drove and walked to the site to deposit ballots in drop boxes behind the library.

Vote by mail changes

Election supervisors opposed the bill during the legislative session primarily on the numerous changes to how mail ballots are received, counted and challenged.

Supervisors will have to allow candidates’ observers to closely watch, and easily dispute, the duplicate ballot process. That’s the process where supervisors duplicate ballots that are wet, wrinkled or otherwise too damaged to run through voting machines.

Supervisors also asked for the ability to use video surveillance to monitor drop boxes instead of relying on staffers, and they also objected to lawmakers imposing a $25,000 fine for leaving drop boxes unattended during early voting hours.

Joe Scott, the Broward County supervisor of elections who took office in January, called the legislation “terrible” in an interview Wednesday.

Requiring that drop boxes be monitored in person at all times will create “a big problem for me in terms of managing the budget of this office,” Scott said. In the past, Broward has provided 24-hour drop boxes at its two elections offices once mail ballots go out, using video monitoring for security.

But now, Scott said, each location will require at least two staffers at all times — in case one has to step away for any reason — to ensure the drop boxes are being watched continuously. The result could be a decision to limit overnight use of the locations, Scott said.

“The new law has limitations that are unreasonable and extremely confusing,” Scott said. “That confusion in effect will lead to voter suppression. Many voters who don’t understand the rules will decide not to participate at all.”

Miami Herald reporter Aaron Leibowitz, Times/Herald reporter Mary Ellen Klas and Times reporter Steve Contorno contributed to this report.