Florida elections supervisors confused, frustrated by new voting law

“We’re all trying to figure this out,” Julie Marcus, supervisor of elections in Pinellas County, told attorneys with the state. “But we have elections in August.”
Florida secretary of state Laurel Lee speaks at pre-legislative news conference on Tuesday Oct. 29, 2019, in Tallahassee, Fla. Florida (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)
Florida secretary of state Laurel Lee speaks at pre-legislative news conference on Tuesday Oct. 29, 2019, in Tallahassee, Fla. Florida (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) [ STEVE CANNON | AP ]
Published June 16, 2021|Updated June 17, 2021

Florida’s new elections reform law is causing headaches and confusion for the state’s 67 county elections supervisors — and several vented their frustrations to Secretary of State Laurel Lee and other state officials during a conference Wednesday.

“We’re all still struggling with how vague some of the new things put into law are,” Okaloosa County election supervisor Paul Lux told the Times following a sometimes-heated discussion on the controversial new law during the Florida Supervisors of Elections’ summer conference. “We need answers.”

Recognizing that tensions over the law, SB 90, might be high, the state had asked that questions for Wednesday’s session with Florida Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews be submitted ahead of time.

But several election supervisors took to the microphone in the grand ballroom of Tampa’s Water Street Marriott anyway, raising concerns about a lack of clarity on what the law requires them to do.

“Would you agree with me that these questions are the classic example why the legislators should have checked with the election experts before they started tinkering with things?” Alan Hays, Lake County’s elections supervisor, pointedly asked attorneys with the state, drawing applause from election supervisors and staff.

Hays, previously a Republican state senator, credited his fellow elections supervisors for improving the bill before passage, saying it previously had parts that were “absolutely so hideous.” Earlier in the day, a lobbyist for the statewide bipartisan elections association told attendees that, at one point, the elections bill was a whopping 400 pages and said behind-the-scenes back-and-forth over the bill included a legislator wanting all voting machines to be made in Florida, even though he said none currently sold are.

The new election law, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last month, tightens Florida’s voting rules by limiting the use of drop boxes to early voting hours and requiring the boxes be monitored in person. It also requires voters to annually renew their request for vote-by-mail ballots and provide more identification information to get one, limits the number of ballots individuals can possess and expands access for partisan observers, among other changes.

Related: Gov. Ron DeSantis signs Florida voting bill in front of Trump fan club

But there are a lot of unanswered questions — not to mention several outstanding legal challenges — that could add confusion in upcoming elections, supervisors said.

“All of us in this room realize that you’re in the same boat as we are. We’re all trying to figure this out,” Julie Marcus, supervisor of elections in Pinellas County, told the state. “But we have elections in August.”

Marcus questioned whether staff monitoring mail ballot drop boxes would have to police the new law that limits people to possessing no more than two ballots other than the voter’s own, except for those of immediate family members.

“There isn’t some specific statute that goes into exactly what it is you’re tasked with doing,” Department of State attorney Brad McVay responded.

Several elections officials expressed frustration that the new law passed after what was widely regarded as a successful 2020 election.

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“You have a stellar group of professional people who administered an outstanding election, and you would think that if you wanted to improve on that election, you would go to that stellar group,” Hays told the Times.

Hillsborough County supervisor Craig Latimer and Manatee County supervisor Mike Bennett both described the new law as a solution looking for an answer. The Florida Supervisors of Elections publicly opposed SB 90 before it passed.

The new law is facing four separate lawsuits, and Hays said waiting for courts to rule on them will be a big hurdle in implementing any changes.

“It’s extremely inconvenient and expensive for us to jump right now and institute all the changes dictated by that new law, and then if the court throws that new law out we’re going to have to come back and change back to the way we were. That’s just completely impractical,” he said.

Related: Florida's election law draws another legal challenge

Leon County supervisor Mark Earley said that if supervisors are confused, voters likely will be too. That could hurt their trust in the election process, he said. Still, he’s hopeful the Legislature will be able to address points of confusion in its next session.

“Some of this is unworkable. Some of it just doesn’t make much sense. Some of it seems to disenfranchise voters, at least their ability to request a vote by mail, and even do name changes, address changes and keep their voter record up to date,” Earley told the Times.

Lux, who will run a special election in July, said the attorneys explained the new laws on Wednesday as best they could. “For anyone who feels like their answers may have been too vague, I believe the answer is because the statutes are vague.”

Lux said he walked away with a somewhat better idea of how he’ll adapt to a new requirement that requires him to give partisan observers “reasonable access” to ballot materials before votes are counted. He said he thinks unclear aspects of the law may be cleared up by the courts.

Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who oversees the Division of Elections, congratulated supervisors on a “secure, orderly and accurate” 2020 election during an earlier keynote address Tuesday at the conference, but sidestepped any discussion of the new voting law changes signed by DeSantis, who appointed her. On Wednesday, Lee cut off the conversation after an hour and a half despite several unanswered questions.

“We’re working through this just as you are,” Lee said, asking for supervisors to continue to share their thoughts.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Florida Department of State General Counsel Brad McVay.