Florida senators advance bill eliminating drop boxes and limiting vote by mail

Ron DeSantis has called for limits on mail-in ballots as well as the discontinuation of drop boxes, two methods promoted by the Republican Party of Florida over the last 20 years but criticized by former President Donald Trump.
State Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.
State Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.
Published March 10, 2021|Updated March 10, 2021

TTALLAHASSEE — With Florida’s elections supervisors warning the change will lead to “chaos and confusion,” a Republican-led plan to ban ballot drop boxes and limit mail-in ballots sailed through a state Senate committee Wednesday with a 4-2 vote along party lines.

The measure, SB 90, is a priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who won by 53,000 votes in 2018 and is expected to seek re-election next year.

Following the national trend by Republican legislators and governors, DeSantis has called for limits on mail-in ballots as well as the discontinuation of drop boxes, two methods promoted by the Republican Party of Florida over the last 20 years but down-played by former President Donald Trump.

“I didn’t even know that this had been in the law,” DeSantis said Wednesday when asked about the proposal to ban vote-by-mail drop boxes. “And when I found that, I said, ‘Well, that’s a problem.’”

Neither DeSantis, nor the sponsor of the bill, Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, could site any examples of wrongdoing associated with mail-in balloting or drop boxes in Florida, and voting advocates have called it a partisan attempt at voter suppression.

“Changing the vote-by-mail process especially following a major election makes no sense unless you’re looking for ways to confuse voters into not voting or to make it harder so they don’t vote,’' said Trish Neely of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

In 2020, as President Trump disparaged mail-in voting and raised doubts about the security of the postal system, 812,474 more registered Democrats than Republicans requested mail-in ballots in Florida. About 45 percent of Florida Democrats voted by mail in November, compared with 31 percent of Republicans, including Trump himself.

Under current law, all those people would automatically receive a vote-by-mail ballot in 2022, but if Baxley’s proposal becomes law, they all would have to resubmit their ballot request. 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.

“There’s nothing wrong with securing a great system that has shown outstanding numbers and I believe will show more,’' said Baxley, before the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee approved his bill.

Baxley amended the proposal to add the ban on drop boxes and to allow supervisors to start counting mailed ballots as soon as election tabulating equipment has been checked and cleared for use.

A record 11.1 million voters cast ballots in Florida in November, and 4.8 million of them, or 43 percent, voted by mail. Of those, about 1.5 million used drop boxes, elections officials said.

Elections supervisors warn of chaos

The Florida Association of Supervisors of Elections is opposing the bill, and elected officials from across the state from both parties have told lawmakers that the change will be expensive and disruptive.

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Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections Christina White said in a memo to other county supervisors that the bill will remove more than 404,000 Miami-Dade voters scheduled to receive mail ballots over the next two years from the list, forcing the county to engage in expensive outreach.

“This bill rolls back a law that has been in place for a decade without cause, at a time when it would have grave impacts on voting accessibility,” she wrote. “This is a great disservice to voters.”

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley told the committee that the proposed changes appear to be “setting us up for another 2012, where we have long lines and chaos and confusion.” He said the elections officials currently have security procedures in place that make the drop-box system monitored, and secure. He noted that while drop boxes are supervised, post office boxes are not.

“Drop boxes are the gold standard, and we all know that as supervisors of elections,’' he said.

The most powerful testimony came from a former state senator, Lake County Elections Supervisor Alan Hays, a conservative Republican who served in the Senate for eight years.

He told his former colleagues that the cost of notifying the 6 million voters who requested mail ballots in 2020 that they will have to renew their application for a mail-in ballot will cost counties $14 million to $16 million.

“You have just played havoc with the lives of 1.5 million Floridians,” he said, “not to mention the burden you’ve added to the lives of supervisors of election. Is that really your intention?”

“If they want to vote by mail ballot for the ’22 election, they will then have to go through another more involved process to request a vote-by-mail ballot. Do you really wish to impose on the counties this added expense of $16 million, and alienate 6 million voters who have a request on file?”

He added that for the state’s non-partisan elections officials: “Nothing in this bill is on our list of suggestions,” except the opportunity to start counting early ballots after accuracy testing of equipment has been completed. “This bill needs a lot of work.”

Another provision of the bill would require the signature on the voter certificate or ballot cure affidavit to match the most recent signature instead of the history of a voter’s signature. “That provision goes directly against the court mandate,’'' Earley said, in which elections officials were ordered to look at more than one example of a voter’s signature to validate it.

With the vocal stream of public opposition, Democrats on the committee, Sens. Victor Torres of Kissimmee and Linda Stewart of Orlando, speculated that Baxley may be posturing to ultimately postpone the bill after it gets sufficient public attention. Only one Republican on the committee spoke up to defend the measure, Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota, who is chair of the Republican Party of Florida.

“The election process is always going to be a continuous improvement,” Gruters said. “How can we make sure that we have that confidence in the system every single election cycle. Just because we had one good system doesn’t mean that the next one is going to be perfect.”

Sens. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, and chairman Ray Rodrigues, R-Fort Myers, did not comment.

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