Florida election bill targets drop boxes again, brings back primary runoffs

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The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature has unveiled another election bill that would further restrict where voters can drop off mail-in ballots and also force party primary candidates into runoffs if they don’t get more than 50% of the vote.

The bill is just the latest in a series of controversial bills since the 2020 election aimed at mail-in voting, all of which have come under fire from Democrats who say they are designed to suppress turnout.

But this proposal also brought immediate pushback from some members of the GOP for what they claimed was an attempt to prevent them from winning primaries without garnering a majority, as candidates can do now.

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, would have been forced into a primary runoff in his first run for Congress in 2016 if this bill had been law.

Gaetz told Politico the change was “being done to undermine the grassroots and empower more establishment-leaning politicians.”

The measure, released Monday by the State Affairs Committee less than three weeks before the end of the legislative session, would be the fourth one restricting the voting process in four years.

State House Speaker Paul Renner had previously shot down a bill in January that would have eliminated mail-in voting. But with the new bill, Renner said the Legislature wanted to “ensure we host the safest and most efficient elections in the nation,” according to Politico.

Alan Hays, the Republican elections supervisor in Lake County and a frequent critic of the continual election changes, said Tuesday, “I have no idea what the thinking is (for) those legislators that came up with this stuff.”

“They didn’t bother to consult with elections professionals in the state,” Hays said. “The Florida election system arguably is the best election system in the United States of America. And if the Legislature will just leave it alone and quit tinkering with it, we can remain the best. But when they keep chipping away, chipping away, chipping away, sooner or later they’re going to wreck it all.”

Bills in 2021 and 2022 had already sharply curbed the use of drop boxes, where voters could deposit mail-in ballots at elections offices and early voting sites, many of which had been available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and monitored on video.

But drop boxes were vilified in 2020 by former President Trump, who falsely claimed they were being used to commit voter fraud.

Issue with drop boxes

Drop boxes instead became “secure ballot intake stations,” staffed by an employee at all times and only available at elections offices and during voting hours at early voting sites.

But a section of the law still allows counties to also place boxes at “any other site that would otherwise qualify as an early voting site,” giving them greater leeway during busy elections.

The new bill would amend that section, restricting where voters could only drop off mail-in ballots at the main county elections office, early voting sites and permanent branch offices “designated and used as such for at least one year before the election.”

Daniel A. Smith, political science chair at the University of Florida, said the changes appear to target larger counties, many of which tend to vote Democratic. It would force them to spend money to staff branch offices or early voting sites if they wanted to continue to place drop boxes at those locations.

Orange and Seminole counties, for example, don’t have any branch offices.

“You’re taking away the opportunity to save taxpayer dollars, by requiring counties that need the additional (boxes) during election season to maintain these branch offices year-round,” Smith said. “It just seems like poor micromanaging of counties’ elected supervisors of elections, who know the business of elections better than politicians in Tallahassee.”

Hays said the conspiracy theories leading to the constant monitoring of drop boxes makes little sense when the majority of mail-in ballots are sent, as the name implies, through the mail.

“I think all of the hullabaloo about the secure ballot intake stations has very little credibility at all until they start putting a guard at every post office and every (mailbox) around the state,” Hays said. “I’ve got one of those blue boxes right out here in front of my office. Do you see the dichotomy there?”

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, called the continued attempt at culling drop boxes “unnecessary and politically motivated.”

“Republicans continue to feed into its rhetoric that elections are stolen and are not legitimate,” Eskamani said. “When you limit the options for folks, it is intentionally designed to just make it harder to vote.”

But Eskamani said the other major proposal in the new bill, a return to primary runoffs for state and federal races, was “worthy of exploration,” even if she couldn’t support the overall bill.

Currently, party primaries are held the third week of August. Whoever gets the most votes in their respective primaries, even if just a plurality, face off in the November election.

The new bill would change the primary date to the third week of June. Any primary race in which the winner doesn’t receive more than 50% of the vote would move to a runoff between the top two candidates in August, with the winner of that primary securing his or her party’s nomination.

The runoff proposal would be similar to how the state held primaries before the law was changed following the tumultuous 2000 election, though some counties and municipalities such as Orange County still hold them for local races.

Different runoff results?

If runoffs had been in place in the two decades since many notable primaries could have ended differently.

Rick Scott would have been forced into a runoff with state Attorney General Bill McCollum in the 2010 GOP primary for governor instead of winning outright, as would Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum against former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Scott went on to win the governor’s mansion, while Gillum narrowly lost to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“A runoff would have almost certainly been won by Graham,” said Matt Isbell, a Democratic elections analyst who runs the MCIMaps site. “So that would have been a big difference. We could have had a Democratic governor.”

Isbell backed a runoff system, saying it “ensures that a nominee has majority support of the electorate of the party. I think that allowing people to win with 25%, 30% of the vote in incredibly crowded races really incentivizes people to run to the fringes on either side.”

In congressional races, both Democratic U.S. Reps. Darren Soto and Maxwell Frost would also have faced runoffs in their initial bids for Congress in 2016 and 2022, respectively.

Eskamani acknowledged that the idea was “100% connected to Republicans trying to prevent MAGA opponents from winning in their primaries. … It is very much a beast they have created that they’re now trying to stop.”

Hays opposed a runoff system on both practical and fiscal grounds, calling the idea “a colossal waste of money.”

The last runoff primary in 2000 had a 12.4% statewide turnout, he said, and a previous one in 1998 had a 6.6% turnout.

“If it costs each of the 67 counties half a million dollars to do an election, that’s $33.5 million that you’re spending for that second primary,” Hays said. “I want to be a much better steward of the tax dollars than that.”

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