Senate OKs elections bill, clears DeSantis presidential run as groups sue over registration
TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate fast-tracked and passed a sweeping elections bill Wednesday that gives Gov. Ron DeSantis the “all-clear” to run for president without resigning and makes changes to voter registration regulations that voter advocates say are crippling.
It comes the day after Republican Sen. Travis Hutson of St. Augustine, co-introducer of the bill, filed an amendment adding in language to "clarify" that the state's "resign to run" law doesn't apply to those campaigning for president or vice president.
Whether DeSantis, who was reelected as governor in November, can run for president without resigning has become a topic of popular debate amid his catapulting political profile.
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And, while the governor hasn't formally announced his campaign for president, he is widely expected to challenge former President Donald Trump in the Republican primary after the legislative session ends in a couple weeks.
Hutson said he believes the law already allowed for DeSantis to do so without resigning.
“But it’s been talked about so much… that I thought, ‘Why don’t we just clarify this one step further?’” said Hutson, who wrote the current version of the law that the Legislature passed in 2018. “I think he’s done a great job as our governor, and I think he should stay here as our governor.”
But Democrats blasted his amendment, questioning how DeSantis could govern and campaign at the same time, and questioning why he got what they called special treatment.
“I don’t think that the governor should be able to be politically married but continue to date,” said Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami. “The governor’s going to lose, and you just gave him a soft landing to come back.”
Lawmakers approved Hutson’s amendment and went on to pass SB 7050 along party lines.
Rather than wait another day to approve the bill, combined its usually-separate second and third readings and voted on both Wednesday. The legislation now must get through the House before heading to the governor’s desk for signature.
GOP supporters, who regularly uphold Florida’s election system as the “gold standard,” said the bill was proactive, comparing it to how teams that win championship games don’t stop trying to improve.
Florida has passed major election legislation annually since the 2020 election, when former President Donald Trump and his supporters spread false claims of widespread voter fraud.
“Let’s keep our progress going,” said Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, who worked on the bill and is the chair of the committee that introduced it. “Let’s show the rest of the country how the gold standard stays golden.”
Democrats accused the bill of being unnecessary – and damaging.
“I am just very uncomfortable voting for a bill that has been targeted to hurt the Democratic party and to help our governor not do his job while he’s running for president,” said Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton.
Meanwhile, a compilation of 36 voting and civil rights groups have sent a letter to legislative leadership to express “in the strongest possible terms” their opposition to the bills, which they say will make “multiple unnecessary and harmful changes” to election law.
One of their big concerns, which were shared by Democrats speaking out against the legislation from the Senate floor: the changes to third-party registration organization regulations.
Third-party voter registration organizations
Burgess said part of the legislation's purpose is to make sure third-party voter registration organizations are meeting a high standard. It's geared at bad actors, he says.
He pointed to a report by the recently-created Office of Election Crimes and Security that said it reviewed approximately 3,077 voter registration applications last year that were collected and submitted untimely by third-party organizations.
“The reality is if a third-party voter registration organization fails to submit timely somebody’s voter registration, that voter is disenfranchised,” Burgess said.
The legislation reduces the amount of time the organizations have to submit voter registration applications, while dramatically increasing the fines for late submission and other violations.
The aggregate fine that could be levied against an organization would go from $50,000 to $250,000. The organizations had a $1,000 fine cap before last year.
“This is well beyond an amount that community-based organizations, many of whom rely on volunteers, can even begin to afford,” wrote the 36 organizations, which included the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the NAACP Florida State Conference.
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The fines don’t end there. The bill bans noncitizens and people with certain felony offenses from collecting or handling voter registration applications. Organizations would be hit with a $50,000 fine if that does occur.
The organizations blast this as discriminatory, writing it implies “that non-citizens are untrustworthy purely on the basis of their immigration status” and the felony restriction “flies in the face of second chances.”
They also say it will put a burden on the organizations, which would have to do background checks on all volunteers or shut down if they can’t afford to do so.
It also requires those organizations to give voter applicants a receipt, which Burgess has said he thought was one of the most important parts of the bill. Opponents worry it could further increase burdens on the groups and make them vulnerable to legal trouble via false receipts from bad actors.
“Together these measures will create an overwhelming chilling effect, and groups will have to decide between risking fines of a magnitude they cannot shoulder, or simply cease undertaking voter registration activities altogether,” the groups write.
The groups say going after these voter registration organizations will have a disproportionate impact on people of color, a population that skews Democratic and are registered to vote by third-party organizations at a higher rate than white people.
"There's no way, if they were registering Republicans, that we would be standing here debating third-party voter organizations," Polsky said.
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Voting rights advocates say it can be difficult for those previously incarcerated to figure out if they're eligible to vote. If you get it wrong, you could face up to five years in prison and a third-degree felony.
They have long-called for a statewide database so previously-incarcerated Floridians can easily determine their eligibility, such as by telling them if they have any outstanding fines or legal fees.
This bill wouldn't do that. Instead, it would double down on putting the onus on voters if they get it wrong.
It adds the following statement to voter registration cards: “This card is for information purposes only. This card is proof of registration but is not legal verification of eligibility to vote. It is the responsibility of a voter to keep his or her eligibility status current. A voter may confirm his or her eligibility to vote with the Department of State.”
And, as Senate Democrats on Tuesday raised concerns about eligibility confusion, the League of Women Voters of Florida and the Florida State Conference of the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit against Secretary of State Cord Byrd elevating those concerns.
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The groups allege voter registration applications lack critical information about the voter eligibility requirements for Floridians with past criminal convictions. This, they say, impedes groups’ registration activities and creates confusion that puts Floridians at risk of criminal penalty.
“It is imperative that Floridians with past felony convictions understand whether they are eligible to register to vote, particularly when the state is targeting those who misunderstand this with criminal prosecution,” said Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, in a statement. “The state must fulfill the requirements of the National Voter Registration Act and protect its residents.”
When asked for comment, a spokesman for the Department of State, which Byrd oversees, said it has not been been served yet.
The legislation reduces by two days the time frame voters have to request a vote-by-mail ballot and send one in. Burgess said it’s trying to make it clear that “there are clear seasons during the election timeframe.”
It also requires an emergency excuse for someone to be provided a vote-by-mail during the early voting period.
“This legislation introduces unnecessary administrative vote-by-mail burdens on both voters and Supervisor of Elections offices, but fails to make basic changes that would improve voter access,” the groups write in their letter.
USA Today Network-Florida government accountability reporter Douglas Soule is based in Tallahassee, Fla. He can be reached at DSoule@gannett.com. Twitter: @DouglasSoule.