In push for overhaul in Florida elections, Senate Republicans ease up and create new controversy

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Lawrence Mower, Tampa Bay Times
·9 min read
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TALLAHASSEE — Florida senators on Wednesday substantially scaled back a potential crackdown on voting by mail, including eliminating a proposed ban on drop boxes, but added requirements that could create headaches for elections supervisors and millions of voters.

Instead of banning drop boxes and requiring IDs when dropping off ballots, senators instead proposed nearly two dozen smaller changes to how mail ballots would be requested, examined and reported.

Under Senate Bill 90, Floridians would have to produce more information — a driver’s license number, state-issued ID number or, if the voter doesn’t have those, the last four digits of their Social Security number — when registering to vote or requesting a vote-by-mail ballot.

Floridians would also be prohibited from possessing more than two ballots, except for ones belonging to family members, returning the state to a previous ban on “ballot harvesting” that Republican lawmakers removed 20 years ago.

County elections supervisors would be given more time to count vote by mail ballots, but would be required to provide daily updates online about the number of ballots issued, returned and processed.

What senators are proposing is less onerous than the new limits on drop boxes and mail ballots that Gov. Ron DeSantis has pushed for following last year’s presidential election. His ally, former President Donald Trump, alleged without evidence that widespread fraud, much of it involving mail ballots, cost him re-election.

But it’s still prompting warnings from some senators and elections supervisors that a rigid signature comparison requirement in the bill could lead to the rejection of countless vote by mail ballots.

Another part of the bill would no longer keep the names of voters with felony convictions secret, a possible attempt to make it easier to challenge the voting status of people who might be ineligible to cast a ballot because they owe outstanding court debts, Leon County Elections Supervisor Mark Earley warned.

The changes come a week after corporations and Major League Baseball protested a Georgia voting law that was also accused of liming access to voting. Florida has so far been spared the backlash seen in Georgia, although on Monday, the voting rights group led by NBA superstar Lebron James issued a tweet urging Floridians to write to their lawmakers about the measure.

On Wednesday, Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, questioned whether Florida would face a similar backlash for adopting a similar voting law.

“We are literally going to wipe millions of people off the rolls by requiring this,” said Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando. “I kind of want to see what the reaction is going to be, because we’re going so far, I don’t believe the people are going to tolerate this.”

Senators ran out of time to vote on Wednesday, likely setting up a vote in a Senate committee next week. The bill would then go to the Senate floor for a vote by all 40 senators.

The Senate version now shares the main provisions of House Bill 7041, the House version of the legislation, including the signature-comparison requirements. That bill sponsor, Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, said the legislation didn’t limit anyone’s ability to vote.

”I dare any corporation to come in here and say that we’re restricting people’s access to the polls,” he told the Times/Herald.

Republican lawmakers have said that their proposed changes to the state’s voting laws is not a reaction to Trump or any fraud that happened in Florida.

Instead, the proposed changes are to reassure concerned voters and prevent future fraud, said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the bill sponsor.

“I’m not trying to present a case that there’s a problem,” Baxley said. “I’m presenting a case that we can prevent ever having a problem.”

Republicans have been warned about loopholes in the state’s vote by mail laws for years, however. Between 2010 and 2015 alone, 20 people in Florida were charged with voter fraud relating to vote-by-mail ballots.

In 2012, a Miami-Dade statewide grand jury recommended lawmakers make several changes to secure those ballots, including outlawing “ballot harvesting,” where candidates and bad actors go door to door collecting ballots and illegally influencing voters. Lawmakers took no action on those recommendations.

The most contentious measure in Wednesday’s bill aimed to address an inherent flaw in voting by mail: to verify the voter’s identity, elections supervisors compare a signature on the ballot envelope to the signature on file. Those signatures can be dramatically different, leading to false rejections.

Baxley’s bill would require elections supervisors compare the signature on ballot envelope to an electronic signature — such as ones signed on an electronic pad at a DMV site — no older than four years old.

If the supervisor doesn’t have an electronic signature newer than four years old on file, supervisors could use the most recent paper, or “wet,” signature they have on file.

However, if the supervisor doesn’t have a newer electronic signature or a “wet” one, the ballot would be rejected.

Baxley said recent signatures, or signatures on paper, are needed to verify that the person signing their name is a human.

“Otherwise, you could register robots, I guess,” Baxley said.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said the proposal could lead to potentially “millions” of Floridians going to their county elections supervisor to update their signatures.

Elections supervisors also objected to a part of the bill that would greatly politicize and heighten scrutiny of canvassing boards by allowing candidates and parties to nominate observers as board members review ballots.

Brandes, who tried to remove it from the bill, said it could lead to 50 or 70 people looming over the shoulder of a board member.

“I don’t think we should have to install risers in the supervisor of elections office,” Brandes said. “It’s one of the significant flaws in this piece of legislation.”

Baxley responded that supervisors could get creative. Some states have cameras set up for observers.

“I’m challenging them (supervisors) to figure out how to do this,” Baxley said.

Earley of Leon County said it posed “very grave security risks” and logistical concerns.

“Creativity’s great,” Earley said, “but we don’t have the funding to buy new buildings to have enough space to do this, or the technology to be able to set this up so that it could be viewed remotely.”

Baxley was not asked why the bill eliminates a provision that makes secret whether someone on their voter registration application affirms that they were convicted of a felony conviction. Republican lawmakers passed that in 2019, on the request of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which led a 2018 constitutional amendment allowing people with felony convictions to vote.

The coalition’s deputy director, Neil Volz, said Wednesday they were still opposed to creating a “centralized government registry” of people with felony convictions.

“Just like people opposed to health, financial and gun-related registries, we know the consequences of such a database could be harmful to our families and communities,” Volz said.

The only arrest for voter fraud in Florida’s 2020 election was of former Republican state Sen. Frank Artiles, who is accused of recruiting and paying a no-party candidate in Miami-Dade’s Senate District 37 race to siphon votes away from the Democratic candidate.

State senators, with bipartisan support, adopted an amendment Wednesday to help eliminate those scenarios. Under the amendment, candidates wishing to qualify for a general election with no party affiliation must have been registered as no party affiliation at least a year before the candidate’s qualifying date.

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

What’s in the Senate’s elections bill:

  • Would prohibit anyone from distributing, ordering, requesting, collecting or delivering more than two vote-by-mail ballots (not including ballots by family members)

  • Extends the ban on soliciting voters at polling places and drop boxes from 100 feet to 150 feet

  • The definition of “solicit” would broaden to include “giving or attempting to give any item to a voter.” It would not apply to supervisor employees or volunteers

  • Anyone registering to vote or applying for a vote-by-mail ballots would have to provide their date of birth and a driver’s license number or state-issued ID card number. If the person does not have either, they can provide the last four digits of their Social Security number

  • Drop boxes must be monitored in person

  • Requires the DMV to report changes of address to the Secretary of State

  • On election days, supervisors of election must post turnout data online at 8 a.m., 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.

  • When comparing signatures on ballot envelopes with signatures on file, elections supervisors must rely on electronic signatures on file that are no older than four years. If the electronic signatures on file are more than four years old, the supervisor can rely on an older signature signed on paper, known as a “wet” signature. If the supervisor doesn’t have any such signatures, the ballot would presumably not count

  • For each election, supervisors must post online the number of vote by mail ballots requested, the number turned in and the number turned in that are not yet tabulated. The data must be updated daily

  • Requests for vote-by-mail ballots would last only for one general election, not two. Anyone who requested a ballot between Nov. 6, 2018 and July 1, 2021, would still get their ballot for the next general election.

  • Candidates and political committees would get more data on people who vote by mail, including whether elections supervisors found the voter’s signature did not match the one on file

  • Drop boxes sites must be determined at least 30 days in advance of the election and can’t be moved after that

  • At the end of each day of early voting, drop boxes must be emptied by elections supervisors. If voters are able to use the drop box outside of early voting hours, the supervisor is subject to a $25,000 fine

  • During each canvassing board meeting, each party and each candidate may have a watcher to observe signature reviews

  • The Secretary of State would be required to do “stress tests” of the voter registration system every two years

  • The names of voters with felony convictions would no longer be secret

  • Candidates wishing to qualify for a general election with no party affiliation must have been registered as no party affiliation at least a year before the candidate’s qualifying date

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