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Voting rights bill’s failure in Senate highlights contrast between Rubio and Demings

The two candidates had sharply different views on the issues as their Senate race heats up.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, left, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings, right.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, left, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings, right. [ AP and Tribune News Service photos ]
Published Jan. 21

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats’ push for national voting rights legislation ended with a thud this week in the Senate, but for Florida’s Val Demings and Marco Rubio the standoff offered an opportunity to draw sharp policy contrasts as their Senate race heats up.

Demings, an Orlando Democrat mounting a campaign for the U.S. Senate after three terms in the U.S. House, repeatedly called on the Senate to pass the House-approved legislation that would expand mail voting nationwide, make Election Day a holiday and give the federal government increased tools to counteract state-level restrictions.

“Voting rights are not partisan. Our democracy is not partisan. Our Constitution is not partisan. When it comes to protecting our rights, the vote in the Senate should be 100 to zero,” Demings said in a statement Wednesday evening as the Senate was locked in a marathon debate.

Instead, the Senate deadlocked 50-50 on the legislation, putting it 10 votes short of the chamber’s 60-vote threshold for most bills, after every Republican voted against it, including both of Florida’s senators, Sen. Rick Scott and Rubio, the incumbent whom Demings is challenging.

Two Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, joined Republicans in opposing a rule change that would’ve enabled the bill to pass with a simple majority — an outcome that was expected before the Senate even started its debate.

Rubio’s campaign accused Demings of backing a federal takeover of the state’s elections.

“Val Demings doesn’t care about the real issues facing people in Florida, like record inflation, soaring gas prices, and empty store shelves. Instead, she is busy trying to ban voter ID and put Washington in charge of Florida’s elections,” Rubio campaign spokeswoman Elizabeth Gregory said in an email Wednesday.

The bill would have also set a national standard for voter ID policies, which would be significantly more permissive than the rules currently on the books in Florida and other states.

In the days leading up to the vote, Rubio established himself as one of the legislation’s most vocal opponents. He castigated it in a floor speech and in a guest column for The Federalist, a conservative website.

“More generally, taking election administration powers away from the states and handing them to the federal government would not eliminate the potential for abusing those powers, it would just make it easier for officials in Washington, D.C., to abuse them — and it would further undermine our system of federalism,” Rubio wrote in The Federalist.

The flurry of speeches and other advocacy from the two candidates offer a clear contrast between the Republican and the Democrat on the issue. Rubio favors deference to Tallahassee, while Demings welcomes more intervention from Washington in the name of protecting voting rights.

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Debate in Congress mirrors debate in Florida statehouse

Rubio’s defense of state control of elections comes at a time when Florida Republican Gov. DeSantis wants to spend $5.7 million in the state budget to form an election security police force to investigate election crimes and irregularities, a proposal that Florida Democrats warn will undermine local election officials and risk politicizing elections.

Related: DeSantis' new election crimes office: 52 positions and unprecedented authority

Demings led a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland last week asking for the Department of Justice to review whether Florida was engaged in voter suppression under DeSantis.

In addition to the pending proposal, the letter pointed to a law passed last year by the state’s Republican-led Legislature that restricts when voters can drop off their mail-in ballots at ballot boxes, adds requirements for voters who want to vote by mail and limits the amount of ballots a person can possess. That law, Senate Bill 90, is being challenged in court by civil rights groups with the trial set to begin on Jan. 30.

“It’s not going to stop,” said Dr. LaVon Bracy, a longtime voting rights activist with Faith in Florida, of the proposed restrictions being considered by the Florida Legislature.

Bracy, who is also the wife of Democratic state Sen. Randolph Bracy of Orlando, said it was important for the federal government to continue addressing voting rights legislation because it was necessary to fix the patchwork of policies around the country that make voting easier in some states and more difficult in others.

“It’s very strange to me that I’ve heard the governor say that the 2020 election in the state of Florida, we had absolutely no problems and we could be the model for the country. Those were his words. Now, all of a sudden, we’re talking voter integrity, we have to stop voter fraud,” said Bracy. “It makes sense to me that we ought to be able in a country like the United States to uniform what we do for voting all across the country.”

The issue is viewed vastly differently by Republicans, who cast the Democrats’ legislation as federal overreach.

“National Democrats want to federalize another aspect of our lives by seizing control over our elections,” said state Rep. Paul Renner, a Republican from northeast Florida who is scheduled to become House Speaker after the 2022 legislative session.

“Under our Constitution, the states are responsible for administering their own elections,” said Renner in an email, attributing Florida’s success in counting ballots in the 2020 election to past reforms that made it “easier to vote, but harder to cheat.”

Voting debate intensifies as 2022 election approaches

At a Congressional Black Caucus event last week, Demings said her parents, who worked as a janitor and a maid, always voted because they knew their vote counted as much as the richest person in town. She argued this principle was under threat from state policymakers.

Demings repeated this point Wednesday and hit Rubio for his stance.

“The right to vote is sacred and a cornerstone of American democracy. Now more than ever, with our democracy under assault by those who seek to suppress our voices, we must do everything within our power to protect and expand that right,” Demings said in a statement through her campaign. “It’s shameful and un-American that Marco Rubio is playing partisan games and calling our basic rights ‘ridiculous’ because he’s too cowardly to face voters at the ballot box.”

Republicans have bristled at Democrats’ comparisons to the Jim Crow era and invocations of the Jan. 6 attack when talking about the issue. Rubio rejected the connection to the Capitol riot in his speech last week.

“They’ve been pushing these same bills with different titles and different names for the better part of a decade,” Rubio said. “And it certainly isn’t about voting rights. It is easier than it has ever been in the history of the United States to register and to vote. And the proof is that in 2020, we had the highest turnout in over 100 years.”

Rubio’s use of the 2020 turnout figures glosses over the fact that many GOP-controlled states have changed their rules since the 2020 election after former President Donald Trump promoted baseless conspiracy theories of election fraud.

Nineteen states, including Florida, have enacted new restrictions, according to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, which has tracked state-level changes to election law.

Meanwhile, congressional Democrats’ efforts to pass national voting rights legislation in response — including re-establishing a system of Department of Justice pre-clearance for state laws to prevent voter suppression under the Voting Rights Act — have repeatedly faltered in the Senate.

It’s unclear how the issue will resonate with voters in 2022.

A survey by the University of South Florida, released the day after the bill was blocked in the Senate, found that a majority of Americans supported key provisions in the legislation, including 64.8 percent who support requiring states to allow same-day voter registration.

But the same survey of 1,000 eligible voters also found that 83.9 percent of respondents say voters should be required to show photo ID at the polls.

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