Florida GOP pushes to overhaul election laws in move that could help DeSantis next year
TALLAHASSEE – With Gov. Ron DeSantis now pushing for a sweeping overhaul of state election laws, Florida is among almost three dozen states in which Republicans are looking to roll back voting access in the wake of last November’s election.
Across the U.S., a new study shows that 165 bills restricting voter access have been filed in 33 states, including Florida, more than four times the number filed just last year.
The spike follows an election shadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic and former President Trump’s relentless, groundless attacks on election results and the quality of voting systems in several key states.
Florida, which Trump carried by 374,852 votes, was spared his wrath. Election officials under DeSantis, a Trump ally, were widely praised when a record turnout resulted in a mostly drama-free contest, with ballots counted quickly and efficiently.
But such success hasn’t stopped DeSantis from calling for an array of controversial changes – including limiting vote-by-mail and the use of ballot drop boxes. Many of his ideas would likely help his party and his own reelection chances next year.
Along with making it more challenging for the 4.8 million Floridians who used mail ballots last fall, DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature are calling for changing laws governing poll watchers, voter identification and the use of private, nonprofit money in voter education efforts.
Some measures are already advancing in the Legislature.
DeSantis’ demand for limiting mail ballots is reflected in legislation by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, which has emerged as the starkest divide between state Republicans and Democrats.
Baxley’s bill (SB 90) sharply reduces the period vote-by-mail requests are valid and was narrowly approved by the Senate’s Ethics & Elections Committee on Tuesday in a party-line vote.
“I hate to go here, but it looks partisan, it looks like there’s an effort to get a strategic advantage,” said Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando. “Knowing that Democrats overwhelmingly vote by mail ... I feel it’s the elephant in the room.”
About 45% of Democrats voted by mail in November, compared with 31% of Republicans in Florida. The imbalance was fueled by Trump discouraging voting-by-mail, insisting without evidence that the practice was rife with fraud.
Current Florida law allows mail ballot requests to be honored through two general election cycles. But Baxley’s bill reduces that to one – requiring voters to request another mail ballot in the year before the second general election.
Even more disruptive, voters who asked for a mail ballot before last fall’s elections, thinking it meant they’d get another ballot for next year’s contests, would have to resubmit their request, according to the bill.
Elections supervisors say managing such a redo will be daunting and costly – likely forcing Florida counties to pay for mailers to contact voters.
With DeSantis poised to launch his reelection campaign, Democrats currently hold a stunning 812,474 voter lead over Republicans in mail ballot requests from 2020, according to the Florida Division of Elections. That advantage would disappear if Baxley’s change becomes law.
Baxley, though, said politics isn’t at the heart of his proposal.
“It will make many of us more secure so we know we have a voter file we can depend on,” said Baxley, who warned about “live ballots” landing at the wrong address or being returned and discarded at post offices.
Elections officials, though, say that doesn’t happen. Ballots that can’t be delivered are returned to elections offices – not trashed by postal workers or left sitting at errant addresses.
DeSantis also endorsed some ideas that are still percolating.
“We need to address these drop boxes; I think they’re a big problem,” DeSantis said.
Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, a former Florida Republican Party chair who joined the governor in West Palm Beach, said he’s working on measures that would require manned staffing by elections officials of voter drop boxes widely used during the 2020 election.
Ingoglia also said he wants to see stricter limits on the number of ballots someone can bring to a drop box – another idea now backed by DeSantis.
“The drop box issue, we need to look at it from a legislative standpoint,” Ingoglia said. “The intent was, it was going to be manned by an elections official or a law enforcement officer, just like any other polling place would be. And it was really only supposed to be open during early voting times. But supervisors had other ideas.”
Eliza Sweren-Becker, voting rights and elections counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice and New York University’s Law School, said Republican legislators around the country are the ones clamoring for new voting limits. She said many are using dubious “justifications for restrictions to ballot access.”
Sweren-Becker authored a Brennan Center study this month that found of the 44 states considering election bills, only six have not proposed policies to alter mail voting in some way.
Daniel Smith, an elections expert at the University of Florida, said the effort is aimed at lowering the uphill climb Republicans now face with mail ballots.
“If voters are sent a mail ballot, there’s a better chance they will vote,” Smith said. “Republicans don’t want that, the way it is now. So there’s no principle, it’s all partisanship driving that.”
Elections experts also said they are wary of a super voting site idea (SB 774, HB 635) sponsored by Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, and Rep. Patt Maney, R-Shalimar, which is inspired by the use of such sites in Gulf and Bay counties since devastating Hurricane Michael in 2018.
Supporters say the sites would operate like early voting sites – where any county voter can cast a ballot – except they’d stay open through Election Day. But they may lead to the loss of other polling places, experts warn.
“Voter centers should not be a substitute for polling places,” Swearen-Becker said, adding it’s important that “polling places are not being shuttered in communities that need access.”
Maney, a retired Okaloosa County judge who chaired his county’s elections canvassing board, defended his proposal, saying, “it doesn’t mandate super voting sites. It makes them available if a supervisor ... wants to do it.”
In citing the host of restrictive ballot measures, the Brennan Center study also pointed out that far more proposals – 541 bills across 37 states – actually expand voter access. Florida Democrats have introduced measures that would allow for voters to register the same day they’re at the polling place and even make Election Day a paid holiday to encourage turnout.
But these proposals face tough odds in a Florida Legislature where Republicans increased their dominance, picking up more seats in the November election.
Instead, the party in power is likely to advance its wish list.
“I think we’re mostly there in Florida, but we need to do a little bit more,” DeSantis said.