WASHINGTON — Florida’s congressional Democrats on Thursday asked Attorney General Merrick Garland to launch a review into whether there is a pattern of voter suppression in the state based largely on a proposal floated by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis late last year.
The letter to Garland was led by Rep. Val Demings, a candidate for U.S. Senate, and comes amid a broader push by President Joe Biden to pass national voting rights legislation, which has stalled in the Senate since last year.
The letter, signed by all 10 Democrats currently in office, cites DeSantis’ proposal to establish a state office to investigate election crimes and to make ballot harvesting a third-degree felony.
“Unfortunately, Florida has seen a disturbing rise in partisan efforts at voter suppression. Proposed legislation would further criminalize standard ‘get out the vote’ practices, making it a criminal act to, for example, notify a homebound voter of his or her option to request a mail-in ballot,” the letter states.
“In addition, there is a shameful attempt to reduce the number of drop boxes, particularly in certain precincts, and finally, the imposition of new deadlines on election supervisors to ‘clean voting rolls,’ an all too familiar strategy to purge voters of color throughout the country.”
Senate Bill 90, which Florida passed last year, made it a crime for election supervisors to send voters unsolicited mail ballots, but it did not go as far as restricting them from notifying voters.
Asked about the reference to such a policy in the letter, Demings’ office pointed to legislation in other states, including a new Texas law that restricts election officials from sending unsolicited applications for mail ballots.
DeSantis’ spokesperson Christina Pushaw dismissed the Democratic lawmakers’ criticism.
“Ensuring that every legal vote counts, and deterring voter fraud, have nothing to do with ‘voter suppression.’ We do not understand why any politician, Democrat or Republican, would be opposed to enforcing election laws,” Pushaw said in an email.
Voting changes enacted in 2021
Last year, state lawmakers made various changes to the state’s voting laws, including limiting the use of vote-by-mail drop boxes to early voting hours and outlawing the possession of two or more vote-by-mail ballots, an attempt to crack down on so-called “ballot harvesting.”
Republicans and Democrats alike have relied on ballot harvesting — where candidates or volunteers go door to door collecting voters’ mail-in ballots — to turn out the vote for the last two decades. Four federal lawsuits challenging the bill are set to go to trial this month.
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Although Democratic lawmakers accused Republicans of suppressing the vote, most of the changes lawmakers made were administrative, and they never adopted more extreme proposals, including banning the use of ballot drop boxes outright.
DeSantis is running for reelection this year and is widely considered to be eyeing a presidential run in 2024, but he’s been facing pressure from conservatives to audit the 2020 presidential election, which he has refused.
This year, he wants lawmakers to pass additional legislation including creating a new election security office with 45 investigators, and making ballot harvesting a felony. He’s also said he wants to ban the use of ballot drop boxes.
However, no legislation has been filed yet, and the state’s Senate president and House speaker did not endorse the ideas when asked about them this week. Florida’s annual 60-day legislative session began Tuesday.
A Department of Justice spokesperson confirmed receipt of the letter, but she declined to say whether the agency planned to take up a review of Florida.
The Congressional Democrats’ letter comes the same week that Biden endorsed changing the Senate’s rules to allow voting rights legislation to pass with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes required to pass most bills.
Democrats in Congress have been losing a race with GOP-led state legislatures to change election laws in the aftermath of the 2020 election, which saw former President Donald Trump refuse to concede and promote baseless conspiracy theories that the election was stolen.
Nineteen states have enacted new voting restrictions as of December, according to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, which has tracked state-level election changes.
Democrats’ broad push for voting rights
Democrats have sought to use last week’s anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack as a rallying point to pass legislation that would curtail state-level restrictions, expand mail voting nationwide and enact same-day voter registration for federal elections.
In a Wednesday floor speech, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., criticized Democrats’ rhetoric and disputed the link between the issue and the Jan. 6 attack.
“This is about power,” Rubio said. “This is about changing the rules of the Senate so they have the power to ram through an election law. An election law to make sure they never lose power, to make it easier to win elections, and therefore have power in perpetuity.”
Demings, an Orlando Democrat who is challenging Rubio, took aim at Senate Republicans Thursday without directly naming Rubio or Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott in a statement in support of the voting rights bills that accompanied her DOJ request.
“But today partisans in the Senate are blocking these protections for Florida voters while politicians in Florida are working to strip legal voters of their rights, efforts which call back to the darkest points of Florida’s history of voter suppression,” she said.
Lawrence Mower of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau contributed to this report.