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Guest Column
Democracy, right here in Florida, is at a tipping point | Column
Mischief, designed to make voting more inconvenient, is not happening only in Florida.
Barbara Williams prepares to cast her ballot in the North Greenwood Recreation Complex on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Pinellas County.
Barbara Williams prepares to cast her ballot in the North Greenwood Recreation Complex on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Pinellas County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Mar. 13
Updated Mar. 13

There’s no nice way to put this: The Florida Legislature is trying to manipulate the rules governing elections in order to favor Gov. Ron DeSantis’ re-election.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, is pushing Senate Bill 90. It purges the vote-by-mail registrations of millions of Florida voters, outlaws drop boxes and prohibits assistance from anyone other than an immediate family member. The Governor is encouraging support for the proposal.

Howard L. Simon is president of the Clean Okeechobee Waters Foundation.
Howard L. Simon is president of the Clean Okeechobee Waters Foundation. [ Provided ]

Democrats emerged from the 2020 election with a significant (800,000) advantage in registrations for mail ballots — probably for the first time since absentee voting in Florida became “no excuse/vote-by-mail” after the disputed 2000 Bush v. Gore election. No surprise: Democratic voters were encouraged to vote by mail to reduce exposure to the coronavirus; Republican voters were encouraged to shun voting by mail.

But now Sen. Baxley and Gov. Ron DeSantis claim that, to bolster confidence in the integrity of elections, voters should be required to request a mail ballot each year. Under current law, applications to vote by mail are approved for two general elections. If the bill passes, millions of Florida voters will have their already-approved vote-by-mail registrations purged, forcing them to re-apply.

This mischief, designed to make voting more inconvenient, is not happening only in Florida. The result of the 2020 presidential election was shocking for some: The losing candidate received more votes (74 million) than any other presidential candidate in the history of our country — except for the candidate who won the election (with approximately 81 million votes).

After the November election, state legislatures, especially those controlled by Republicans, set about devising schemes to reduce turnout — and given the history of our country, primarily turnout of Black voters.

There were similar efforts following the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Florida led the way with restrictions on early voting, including Sunday voting which is used by Black voters as part of the “souls to the polls” program, and restrictions to make voter registration programs like those conducted by the League of Women Voters more cumbersome.

The rationale for the assault on voting rights evolved, becoming thinner and more disingenuous, from the need to combat voter fraud, to former Gov. Rick Scott’s acknowledgment that there is no voter fraud but retreating to the need to address “potential fraud,” to the need to make voters feel more confident about our electoral system.

Of course, if confidence in the integrity of elections is needed, it is only because former President Donald Trump and Gov. DeSantis continue to stoke the lie that fraud affected the outcome of the 2020 election.

The facade of a rationale has now almost completely dissolved. Making voting less convenient is pursued, as the attorney for the Arizona Republican Party acknowledged to the U.S. Supreme Court, to enhance competitive political advantage.

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We have a glimpse of what America looks like when voting rights are protected: in Mississippi, for example, when the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965, only 7 percent of the state’s eligible Black voters were registered to vote; 2 years later, 60 percent were registered.

We should worry about what our country will look like if the assault on voting rights by state legislatures is not rebuffed by Congress or if the Supreme Court guts what remains of the Voting Rights Act — less participation, less representative government, more minority rule, less democracy.

But back to the Baxley/DeSantis scheme to purge vote-by-mail enrollments. It is neither partisan nor anti-DeSantis or pro-DeSantis to be concerned that millions of Florida voters, seniors and snowbirds included, will have their vote-by-mail enrollment needlessly purged, requiring them to re-apply all over again.

Floridians deserve a fair election — one in which rules are not manipulated by one candidate who gets to put his finger on the scale to benefit his own election.

Howard L. Simon served as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida from 1997 until 2018.