Florida and Jan. 6: Where do we go from here?

We asked elections experts and officials what last year’s Capitol insurrection means for democracy in the U.S. and in Florida. Here’s what they told us.
Protesters loyal to President Donald Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. A new poll shows that a year after the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, only about 4 in 10 Republicans recall the attack by supporters of former President Donald Trump as very violent or extremely violent.  (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)
Protesters loyal to President Donald Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. A new poll shows that a year after the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, only about 4 in 10 Republicans recall the attack by supporters of former President Donald Trump as very violent or extremely violent. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File) [ JOSE LUIS MAGANA | AP ]
Published Jan. 5, 2022

The pieces of Jan. 6, 2021, remain scattered in the year since a crowd, armed with weapons, flags and lies from a dispatched leader, stormed the U.S. Capitol.

The U.S. House again impeached President Donald Trump, this time for his role in the insurrection. The Senate acquitted him. Law enforcement arrested more than 700 people, their cases still winding through the judicial system. Republican-led states, including Florida, passed new voting laws despite few cases of fraud from the 2020 election. Conservative echo chambers on social media, cable and radio spread myths of what happened that day and the reason for it.

We asked experts and elected officials at the local, state and national levels to tell us how they view the consequences of a day that American politics changed forever. Here’s what they said.

Brian Corley, Pasco County Supervisor of Elections

Watching the coverage of the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol was one of the most horrifying things Brian Corley had seen. He couldn’t recall a time he’d been angrier.

He thought of his dad’s New York Police Department riot helmet, cracked from a thrown brick, which he keeps as a memory of his father’s 30 years in law enforcement.

To Corley, the actions on Jan. 6 were a culmination of a misinformation campaign pushing that the election was rigged.

Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley
Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley [ Times ]

“We went from having to refute misinformation and disinformation from Russia and other foreign adversaries to, quite frankly, our own political leaders and political pundits, fellow Americans,” said Corley, a Republican.

Months after the election, Corley says he’s still constantly getting emails and talking to constituents about election safety and the integrity of 2020.

Corley said he’s had to contact the FBI due to some threats made against him or his staff.

Related: Pasco's elections official rejected 2020 conspiracies. Then he faced threats.

Corley said he hopes people who are profiting from misinformation see the harm they’re doing.

He said the “eternal optimist” in him looks to 2018 as a bright spot, a sign that cooler heads can and will prevail. During a tense statewide recount, individuals from both sides stood and watched. But the atmosphere was civil, Corley said, and at the end of the day all parties agreed, no matter where they stood on the outcome, that the count was fair and right.

Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, and chairman of the Florida Republican Party

To the leader of the Florida Republican Party, the motivations behind the Jan. 6 rioters are clear.

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And so is the fallout.

“They showed up to D.C. because they were upset about the results, and the questions that surrounded some of these elections in different parts of the country,” said Sen. Joe Gruters.

Republican Party of Florida chairman Joe Gruters.
Republican Party of Florida chairman Joe Gruters. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

He said moves by Republican-controlled legislatures across the country to tighten state voting laws — particularly voting by mail — were direct responses to those concerns. In Florida, lawmakers this year banned possessing multiple vote by mail ballots and limited the use of ballot drop boxes. Gov. Ron DeSantis is also proposing a new office to investigate potential election-related crimes.

“You can’t have a system where people are questioning whether or not elections were fair,” Gruters said. He said a lot of distrust of elections still remains, saying the only way to combat that is to improve the election system.

Although Trump has repeatedly claimed widespread fraud cost him the election, evidence supporting those claims has not materialized. Gruters did not believe Trump was responsible for undermining trust in elections, though.

“I think President Trump has a lot of valid points, and I think there was fraud, and he brought up the issue,” Gruters said. “As a result of him championing all these issues, we’ve had historic election integrity reform all across the country, and as a result, we’re much better off.”

Gruters stopped short of saying that Biden wasn’t fairly elected president.

“The elections were certified, so Joe Biden is the president, but I think the reason why people are so unhappy is because of all those questions that exist to this day,” Gruters said.

Aubrey Jewett, professor of political science at the University of Central Florida

To Aubrey Jewett, the story of Jan. 6 is political division. While many progressives see the events of the day as a domestic terrorist attack, many conservatives say the day’s events were overblown.

Jewett doesn’t see that division vanishing any time soon. In fact, the 2022 elections, which are looking quite favorable for the Republican Party, may widen the gap even more.

Aubrey Jewett
Aubrey Jewett [ University of Central Florida ]

“Historically, all signs are pointing to a Republican wave. And I suspect if that happens it will reinforce the beliefs of many Republicans. And they’ll say ‘See? Our guy really did do better two years ago.’”

Longer term, the events of Jan. 6 may be the start of a worrying trend. It’s vital to the American political system that the loser of a presidential campaign acknowledges their loss, he said. Jewett noted that even candidates who may have had legitimate gripes about the result of a presidential election — Richard Nixon in 1960; Al Gore in 2000 — historically did not go all out to pursue them.

Trump’s actions following the 2020 election broke from that tradition.

“We have seen this in many other countries, and it often leads to instability and political violence and governments being overthrown,” Jewett said.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa

There’s no doubt that the events on Jan. 6 changed the feeling of bipartisanship in Congress, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor said.

Having Republican colleagues who voted to challenge electoral college results even after Jan. 6 shook the camaraderie that had existed before, even in a divisive D.C.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa [ LEIVA, ANDRES | Tampa Bay Times ]

Castor said research is showing that America’s democracy isn’t as infallible as some legislators may have thought, adding that Trump’s words have sown division.

“People pledged allegiance to him rather than to our Constitution and history will judge them harshly,” Castor said.

She said conspiracy peddling will affect the 2022 elections. Disinformation campaigns will continue, Castor said, and play on people’s insecurities or racist beliefs.

People must step outside of their camps and listen to each other, Castor said.

Castor said she and colleagues must offer tangible solutions that affect people’s day-to-day lives, such as lowering the cost of health care, ensuring there are good jobs and good schools available and investing in infrastructure.

“We’re going to have to build back, we’re going to have to gain the trust and hold people accountable and work on this democracy because it’s shakier than we thought,” she said.

Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills

The events on Jan. 6 have been a way for the government to persecute, oppress and surveil the Trump supporters who went up to D.C. to participate in rallies, said Rep. Anthony Sabatini.

“The Jan. 6 commission is part of one of many different steps the federal government has tried to take to commence war on everyday Americans,” Sabatini said.

Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills
Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills [ The Florida Channel ]

Sabatini is one of the most outspoken far-right conservatives in Florida’s Legislature, who has criticized the state’s Republican leadership as being out of touch with the modern conservative party.

Sabatini said there was confusion from the first day about what happened at the Capitol. But he said “the media” is now perpetuating a lie that those who entered the Capitol are all criminals. He said the majority thought they were allowed to go in the building.

“Anyone who is a Trump supporter is automatically labeled a domestic terrorist,” Sabatini said. He added, “The fact that these scumbag establishment Republicans perpetuated the media lie is an embarrassment to the United States.”

Sabatini railed against large social media companies like Twitter and Facebook, which in the aftermath of Jan. 6 locked Trump’s accounts. Sabatini said he wants to see Big Tech broken up.

Related: Trump won Florida, but online and at your door, his supporters are trying to force an audit

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando

Rep. Anna Eskamani said the ripples from Jan. 6 can be seen all over Florida politics. For her, the Republican-backed election reform bill passed during the 2021 session was a nod to the misguided idea that something went terribly wrong during the 2020 presidential election. DeSantis signed the bill in an exclusive event on a conservative Fox News morning program.

Wedge issues like critical race theory and illegal immigration have also served to distract from the more fundamental debate over the future of our democracy, Eskamani said.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando.
Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando.

The progressive state representative said it’s up to Republicans to start being honest to their most fervent supporters.

“I know some Republicans have tried to paint those that engaged in the insurrection as being fringe, but it’s actually the base,” she said.

Eskamani said she sometimes gets emails from people who believe the 2020 election was stolen. She always tries to respond. The conversations rarely end with Eskamani persuading the writer, but she said they often end amicably.

Progressive politicians must engage with voters who feel disaffected by the 2020 election, she said. Their frustration with the political process is often a symptom of the fact that elected officials have not been responsive to their needs, she said.

But above all, elected officials at all levels, and from all parties, must reckon with Jan. 6.

“Just because one insurrection failed does not mean there won’t be another,” Eskamani said.

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, Stetson University College of Law election law professor

Until there are more public hearings from the Jan. 6 commission, the effect it will have on the American public remains unpredictable, said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy.

“In the same way that the Watergate hearings really changed the way Americans thought about Richard Nixon and his administration, this investigation and public hearings about Jan. 6 may alter how the American public views President Trump,” she said.

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy [ File photo ]

It won’t be an exact parallel, though, because of the fractured media landscape and the confirmation bias people get from their preferred information source, she said.

Torres-Spelliscy said the events of Jan. 6 weren’t just fueled by Trump and theories about the election being fraudulent. It was also born of voting machine companies being opaque and a lack of public resources around election administration to inform voters.

The 2020 election being held safely amid a pandemic was a feat, she said, and she credits the action of state legislatures for quickly changing laws to allow expanded ballot drop-offs and vote-by-mail.

“What I find a little bit troubling about what happened in 2021 is states didn’t just roll back to where they were in 2019, a lot of states have gone further back in terms of putting in restrictions on voters,” she said.