Florida Senate braces for elections overhaul. But what are the major changes?

Elections supervisors still have concerns, however.
Carlos Amado, left, with the Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections, guides Isabel Lui to the slot to drop off her ballot, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020 in North Miami.
Carlos Amado, left, with the Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections, guides Isabel Lui to the slot to drop off her ballot, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020 in North Miami. [ MARTA LAVANDIER | AP ]
Published April 22, 2021|Updated April 22, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers continued to water down an elections bill in the state Senate on Thursday, stripping out some of the more controversial measures that provoked outrage by Democrats voting rights groups.

Gone is a proposal that could have caused headaches for millions of voters by requiring them update their signatures on file with their county elections supervisor. Senators also eased up on some concerns by elections supervisors.

The result, Republican said, is evidence that they listened to concerns by elections officials and voting rights groups over the last several weeks, after corporations and Major League Baseball protested a similar bill passed by Georgia lawmakers.

“This bill is not Georgia 2.0,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. “As you can see, we have been listening.”

What’s left is a bill that some county elections supervisors still still oppose, and one that raises questions by Democrats about why changes are necessary in the first place. Often a source of election drama since the 2000 recount, Florida’s election went off without a hitch last year, Republicans and Democrats admitted.

Lawmakers have said they were just making improvements to the process.

“Florida was a model for the nation in November,” Baxley said. “There are always lessons to be learned here.”

Senators are now poised to pass a bill that makes substantial changes to Florida’s vote-by-mail process. The bill still has to be voted out of the Senate, which will likely happen next week, and a similar House bill is also awaiting a floor vote. Both bills have to match to make it to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.

Under both bills, voters could only request a vote by mail ballot for the next general election, not the next two general elections.

Voters would be also be prohibited from collecting, distributing, submitting or otherwise possessing more than two mail ballots, unless those ballots belong to family members. Lawmakers say it’s an attempt to limit the practice of gathering and submitting completed mail ballots by volunteers or third-parties — also known as “ballot harvesting” — that led to several local elections scandals in the last 20 years. It also limits the more innocent practice of bringing the mail ballot of more than one friend, neighbor or colleague to a drop box. (Miami-Dade already restricts this).

The bill would expand the “no-solicitation zone” around polling places and drop boxes from 100 feet to 150 feet. And anyone registering to vote or making changes to their registration would have to provide a driver’s license number, ID number or last four digits of their Social Security Number.

The bill is far different from where it was just two weeks ago. Senators have dropped some of the more extreme measures in Senate Bill 90, including:

  • a plan to eliminate the use of drop boxes
  • restricting the number of signatures a supervisor could use to verify a vote-by-mail ballot (some restrictions still exist in the House version)
  • requiring someone to show an ID when leaving a ballot in a drop box (the House version still includes it)

“They’ve made some dramatic improvements, without a doubt,” said Leon County elections Supervisor Mark Earley, who has closely followed the bills.

He and other supervisors still have serious concerns about provisions dealing with elections supervisors. Both bills would allow candidates’ observers to closely watch, and easily dispute, the duplicate ballot process. That’s the process where supervisors duplicate ballots that are wet, wrinkled or otherwise too damaged to run through voting machines.

There can be thousands of duplicated ballots in an election, and an observer could hold up the entire process by objecting to them.

“If you jam up the process, even logistically, that disenfranchises people,” Earley said.

Voting rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers note that the Legislature is only taking action after former President Donald Trump alleged widespread, and unsubstantiated, fraud — and after Democrats successfully pushed voters to vote by mail during the pandemic.

The timing is suspicious for another reason, they say. For the last two decades, Republicans were the top advocates of voting by mail, which is popular among the older voters who make up their base. To make it easier, Republicans repealed a law that prohibited people from possessing more than two ballots — something they want to reinstate this year.

“They were using mail ballots more effectively than the Democrats, and nobody said there was a fraud problem or anything else,” said Barry Richard, an elections lawyer who successfully represented George W. Bush in Florida’s 2000 recount.

Some of the provisions are nonsensical, he added. The House’s bill would require someone to present an ID when leaving their ballot in a drop box, something that elections supervisors fear would lead to long lines. Both bills require drop boxes to be manned during early voting hours.

“Nobody monitors a mailbox, and you just drop your ballot in the mailbox. What difference does it make?” Richard said. “It’s silly, and everybody knows it.”

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