Following a smooth, high-turnout election in 2020, some Republican lawmakers can’t resist tinkering with Florida’s vote-by-mail system. A bill moving through the state Senate would hit the reset button on all mail ballot requests, no doubt creating confusion among voters. This is a solution in search of a problem that also reeks of partisanship.
Under current law, when voters request a mail ballot, the request is good for two general election cycles. SB 90, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, would reduce that to one election and require everyone who signed up for a mail ballot in 2020 to reapply to receive it in 2022.
Baxley claimed the change could “invigorate” turnout. Other Republicans used words like “reset” and “refresh” to describe the effect on Florida’s voting system. But in a state with a notorious history of fumbling the ball on Election Day, “refreshing” a system that’s finally working is just asking for trouble — not to mention more embarrassing headlines.
The bill also creates an unfunded mandate. A legislative analysis notes that counties would bear more processing costs if the change prompted a higher number of ballot requests. But the real cost would be in getting the word out. First, there are the voters who have already requested a mail ballot, who think they’re covered but who would have to resubmit their request. Then there’s the wider public education that would be required. Paul Lux, the supervisor of elections in Okaloosa County, told legislators: “A big concern to the supervisors is it ‘clean slates’ everything.”
This wouldn’t be the first time the slate has been wiped clean. Since the establishment of Florida’s vote-by-mail system, the law has changed four times regarding how many elections one mail ballot request would cover. Baxley’s bill would mark the fifth change. Continually changing these small but important details of state election law is not how you create an informed electorate, not how you run smooth elections and certainly not how you encourage strong turnout.
That’s the stated concern of some Senate Democrats, who suspect that lower participation is the real goal. In 2020, 2.1 million Democrats voted by mail, compared to 1.5 million Republicans and 1 million no-party voters. Shuffling the rules for mail ballot requests could dampen those numbers going into 2022. Baxley’s weak defense: “Why not try this?” The stronger argument: “Why change what’s working?”
Baxley’s bill would also extend the number of days officials have to count mail ballots from 22 days before Election Day to 35-40 days. That would codify an element of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order last year that extended the canvassing period in response to the coronavirus. The change makes sense. Confusion and distrust erupted in other states that didn’t start counting ballots until Election Day. It’s prudent to provide sufficient time to count mail-in ballots so voters know the accurate outcome as early as possible. Still, the bad far outweighs the good in Baxley’s bill.
Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus told a House committee last week, “Our election code works.” That fact, supported by the exemplary, problem-free election Florida conducted last year, should be all the reason needed to abandon this unnecessary change to the state’s vote-by-mail system.
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