Florida Senate passes its elections bill. Will it keep people from voting?

The measure would create an elections security force, but it’s not as substantial as what Gov. Ron DeSantis wanted.
Senate Bill 524 was watered down significantly from what Gov. DeSantis originally requested. Still, it would make over a dozen changes to the state's elections laws.
Senate Bill 524 was watered down significantly from what Gov. DeSantis originally requested. Still, it would make over a dozen changes to the state's elections laws. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]
Published March 5, 2022|Updated March 5, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Republican state senators moved forward with a slate of election reforms on Friday that includes creating a first-of-its-kind elections security office under the control of the governor.

During a nighttime session Friday, the Florida Senate voted 23-15 to send the bill to the House, where it’s expected to be voted on and sent to the governor next week.

Democrats briefly debated against the legislation, while a lone Republican senator pointed to a number of individual cases of fraud — most of them allegedly committed by Republicans or GOP operatives — since the 2020 election.

“What are we really afraid of here? Are we worried about our elections being too secure?” said Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, the bill sponsor.

Senate Bill 524 is a top priority for Gov. Ron DeSantis, but the bill has been watered down significantly from what he initially requested. It still would make more than a dozen changes to the state’s election laws, including:

  • Creating a 15-person Office of Election Crimes and Security to investigate fraud complaints in the secretary of state’s office, which reports to the governor.
  • Adding 10 state police officers, chosen by the governor, to augment the office.
  • Requiring elections supervisors to clean up their voter rolls annually, rather than every two years.
  • Changing the name of drop boxes to “ballot intake stations.”
  • Imposing a $1,000 fine for switching someone’s party registration without their consent — a reaction to reporters discovering some voters’ party affiliations in Miami-Dade County were unwittingly switched to the Republican Party.
  • And making some elections crimes a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, instead of a misdemeanor.

Lawmakers have dropped some of their more contentious ideas, including a proposal to require voters to add the last four digits of their Social Security number or state-issued ID number to their vote-by-mail ballot. One Republican elections supervisor had called such a requirement a “recipe for disaster.”

Instead, the bill now requires the secretary of state to come up with a plan to adopt such a system statewide.

DeSantis also wanted the elections security office to assert control over any local election-related investigation, which Republican lawmakers never proposed.

Some people who believe there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election have been upset by the changes.

Related: Florida Republicans’ voting plan leaves few satisfied

On Friday, the bill was blasted by Democrats and Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, who acknowledged that some components, such as the more frequent list maintenance, were a good idea.

Assigning so many people to go after cases of fraud, however, is “just absolutely, almost comical,” Brandes said, and he described other parts as “just ridiculous.” In 2020, the secretary of state’s voter fraud hotline fielded 262 complaints, with 75 deemed credible enough to be referred to police.

Brandes said that last year, the Legislature passed a bill forbidding people from making code complaints anonymously. But calls to the voter fraud hotline can be made anonymously, despite voter fraud crimes being elevated to felonies.

“I find that inconsistency something that I cannot support,” he said.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, said he was concerned with assigning so much power to the governor. Other Democrats said the changes weren’t needed, since DeSantis has said the 2020 election went so smoothly.

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Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said the bill should be renamed from “election administration” to “voter intimidation and voter suppression, because that’s really what we’re doing here.”

While Democrats and voting rights groups point to the state’s well-documented history of disenfranchising Black Floridians and others, they’ve been hard-pressed to show examples of individual voters who would be hurt by the proposed changes.

Hutson, the only Republican to debate in support of the bill on Friday, said he’s heard all the claims that last year’s bill amounted to “voter suppression.”

“When I went home, I heard it all. It was said over and over again,” Hutson said. “And yet still to this day, there is zero evidence of that with SB 90.”

Voting rights groups say recent legislation has created a chilling effect for elections supervisors, and they say Republicans are imposing rules that make it harder to request a vote-by-mail ballot. Third-party registration groups also say recent changes have made it harder to sign up new voters.

But finding individual cases has been a challenge, and Republicans have pointed out that it’s easier to vote in Florida than in several Democratic-controlled states.

“it’s hard to point at one voter that something’s happened to, but there is data suggesting problems,” said Brad Ashwell, Florida state director for All Voting is Local, a voting rights advocacy group that has testified against the legislation. “Our overarching feeling on this is, we’d rather see them overseeing improvements to our election system instead of continually making it harder to vote.”

The legislation comes on the heels of two recent legislative fights over voting. Last year’s involved Senate Bill 90, also requested by DeSantis — allegedly to eliminate voter fraud following former President Donald Trump’s claims about the 2020 election.

That legislation placed limitations on ballot drop boxes, required voters to provide a Social Security number or ID number when requesting a vote-by-mail ballot and numerous other mostly administrative changes.

And In 2019, at DeSantis’ urging, Republican lawmakers drew a hard line on the constitutional amendment known as Amendment 4, which restored the right to vote to people with felony convictions who completed “all terms of sentence.”

“It’s been a sustained attack on voting rights,” said Genesis Robinson, political director for Equal Ground, a voting rights organization.

Robinson recalled some of that history to lawmakers this week.

“Whether it was a literacy test, accurately counting the amount of jelly beans in a jar or the use of law enforcement at polling places as a means for intimidation, the history of voter suppression against people of color runs deep and continues today,” he told them.

In the courts, however, voting rights groups have been unsuccessful. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld Senate Bill 7066, which limited Amendment 4, despite claims it amounted to an unconstitutional “poll tax.” And during the court challenge of Senate Bill 90 last month, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker appeared skeptical of the argument that the law was designed expressly to target people of color.

“Isn’t it just as easily the justification that the law was passed to keep the former president happy?” Walker asked.

Walker has yet to rule on the case.

Democrats, elections supervisors and voting rights groups say the recent legislation has had real effects.

In Walker’s court, Leon County Elections Supervisor Mark Early testified that supervisors have resigned over the recent changes, mentioning that last year’s bill imposing a $25,000 fine on supervisors who violate the laws on drop boxes “is one more attack, essentially, on elections officials that they have to work under.”

“It’s become a very difficult work environment,” Early testified.

Brian Corley, Pasco County Supervisor of Elections, testified that his staff has faced threats and been called racial slurs. He released a statement about a month after the 2020 election condemning the “baseless claims and misinformation intent upon undermining the election results.”

“I just felt the need to speak out for the truth and the reality,” Corley, a Republican, testified.

News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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