Florida Republicans push limits on vote by mail

SB 90 limits vote-by-mail applications to one election cycle and requires everyone who signed up for mail ballots in 2020 to reapply to get them in 2022.
Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.
Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.
Published Feb. 17, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Bypassing the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” question, Florida Senate Republicans agreed Tuesday that Florida’s vote-by-mail process worked smoothly in the last election cycle but still needed a change. They want to erase all standing requests for mail-in ballots in 2022 and require voters to start over.

“It’s not that big of a change. Some people are nervous about change,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Republican from Ocala who sponsored the bill. “Why not try this? It may invigorate participation.”

After a record 4.8 million Floridians voted by mail in November, the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee approved SB 90 along party lines to limit vote-by-mail applications to one election cycle and require everyone who signed up for mail ballots in 2020 to reapply to get them in 2022. Current law allows voters who ask for a mail-in ballot to have their request remain current for two general election cycles unless they opt out.

The bill also moves up the starting time for counting vote-by-mail ballots from 22 days before an election to 35-40 days before an election, putting into statute a portion of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order from 2020.

The change to the mail-in ballot dates was opposed by both Democrats and Florida’s non-partisan elections supervisors, who last week warned lawmakers about tinkering with Florida’s election laws after the state conducted the first election in years that wasn’t marred by problems.

“Our Florida election code works,’' Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus told the House Public Integrity and Elections Committee last week. “We’ve seen it time and time again. Can we make administrative tweaks? Yes. Clarify some areas in law? Yes. But to continue our trajectory of successful elections in Florida, data-driven, evidence-based decisions and a moderated approach to legislating is key. "

Julie Marcus, a 17-year veteran of the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office, was tapped by Gov. Ron DeSantis to fill the unexpired term of retired elections supervisor Deborah Clark.
Julie Marcus, a 17-year veteran of the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office, was tapped by Gov. Ron DeSantis to fill the unexpired term of retired elections supervisor Deborah Clark. [ Courtesy Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office ]

Baxley dismissed the concerns of opponents and defended his proposal as needed “to create less opportunities for mishap or mischief.”

“I think this is a wonderful opportunity to refresh,’' said Sen. Ileana Garcia, a Miami Republican, who voted with Republican Sens. Doug Broxson, Jennifer Bradley and George Gainer in support of the bill. She won her election over former Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez in a recount by 34 votes. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to reset, reengage voter confidence. If it’s working now, maybe it can work a little better.”

Democrats called the bill a voter suppression tactic, intended to tamp down the record vote-by-mail support of Democrats in 2020, especially in the state’s largest metro areas. In 2020, there were 2.1 million Democrats who vote by mail, compared to 1.5 million Republicans and 1 million voters who were not affiliated with any party.

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Under current law, voters who asked for a mail-in ballot last year could receive mail-in ballots for state elections through 2022. Because alerting voters of the change would be born by counties, not the state, the measure was opposed by the organization that represents county supervisors of elections.

“A big concerns to the supervisors is it ‘clean slates’ everything,’' said Paul Lux, supervisor of elections in Okaloosa County. “Should this stand, the cost of outreach will be where the rubber meets the road, and that will come from counties.”

Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Orlando Democrat, asked Baxley what evidence he had for a need for reform. When Baxley didn’t provide any, Bracy suggested the “elephant in the room” appeared to be that Republicans wanted to make the change to diminish Democratic participation.

‘Looks partisan’

“I hate to go here, but it looks partisan,” Bracy said, adding that as the state enters into an election cycle with another governor’s race, after the previous one was decided by 34,000 votes, the goal appears to be to suppress Democratic votes.

“I don’t get why now, when it’s been working,’' Bracy said. “I mean it looks like there’s an effort to try to get a strategic advantage — knowing that Democrats overwhelmingly vote by mail, the motivation of the measure is partisan.”

Baxley responded that his goal was “to protect the credibility of this system,” and it is “not my objective to prevent people from voting.” He noted that thousands of people move in the state each year, and he wanted to avoid the possibility that ballots could arrive at people’s homes after they had moved.

But Lux, representing the election supervisors, said Florida law already prevents the post office from delivering a ballot to an address where someone is no longer living and it is a felony to forge someone’s signature on a ballot.

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, and Sen. Lori Berman, D-West Palm Beach, unsuccessfully attempted to amend the bill, and several voting advocates spoke against it.

Rev. Joseph Parramore of Quincy, representing Faith in Public Life, said the bill would “put an unnecessary burden on the supervisors of elections as this is an unfunded mandate in times where we already face budget constrictions and constraints that are already taxing.”

“Why break a system that everyone has applauded?,’' he asked. “This provision would be a step in the wrong direction, and is seen as nothing more than an attempt once again at voter intimidation and voter suppression.”

Rich Templin of the AFL-CIO also warned of unintended consequences of the bill.

“Our elections were exemplary, and we have the highest vote-by-mail turnout we’ve seen,’' he said. “Every time you institute changes like this and every time you add another step, that creates a tremendous amount of outreach and education. The losers are the ones you don’t reach and don’t understand and find themselves disenfranchised in the process.”

The Senate committee also passed SB 82, which requires most political advertisements, independent expenditures, and electioneering communications sent by text message to voters to carry a sponsorship disclaimer, or a URL address or hyperlink to a website containing the disclaimer.

Marcus, the Pinellas County supervisor, testified last week that the fact that Florida allows political parties to have access to mail-in ballot requests allowed parties and their affiliates to target voters with text messages, emails, and robo calls to remind them to vote.

“This caused massive confusion,’' she said.

Antonacci weighs in

Democrats fear SB 90 will be the first of many efforts intended to suppress votes and diminish vote-by-mail. At a meeting last week of the House Public Integrity and Elections Committee, Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, suggested the state should require photo IDs for voters to obtain mail-in ballots, citing some European countries.

Former Broward Supervisor of Elections Pete Antonacci, who has now been promoted by DeSantis to be chief judge of the Division of Administrative hearings, gave the House committee a menu of things legislators could focus on to revise future elections.

Although Antonacci did not provide any examples of wrongdoing, he suggested that legislators should revise the signature verification process used in vote-by-mail balloting. He recommended the state prohibit political parties from getting lists of people who have not returned their mail-in votes and outlaw the practice of people who are returning more than one ballot at drop boxes, a practice he called “ballot harvesting.”

Challenged by Rep. Allison Tant, D-Tallahassee, to describe evidence of fraud from “ballot harvesting,” Antonacci, a former deputy attorney general, responded it was the appearance of impropriety that bothered him.

“It gives rise to the assumption that there has been some influence by the possessor of those ballots upon the voter,’' he said. “That could be wrong. It could be perfectly OK. They might have picked them up in the collection baskets Sundays, I don’t know, but it does raise the implication of improper conduct.”

Supervisors’ warning

By contrast, both Marcus and Leon County Supervisor of Election Mark Earley have said that the single biggest threat to the 2020 elections was misinformation surrounding vote-by-mail, not the way the mail-in ballots were handled.

“The challenge facing election administrators is pure and simple: misinformation in regards to the mail-in ballot process,’' Marcus told the House Public Integrity and Elections Committee. “It resulted in mistrust.”

Marcus urged legislators to be “prudent and deliberate in regard to what is ultimately changed in Florida law” or, she warned, it could undermine the trust in the process.

“Florida, was a resounding undisputed success,’' she said. “Why? because Florida did not overhaul the election code or make sweeping changes at the last minute.”

Earley also said he disagreed with Antonacci that there was any evidence of people abusing the delivery of mail-in ballots. He said there were families and neighborhood leaders that collected more than one ballot to deliver them for people “afraid to go out.” He said they often called ahead to ask permission, and their motives had “good reasons behind that.”