Here’s why Florida’s newest election bill will only add to a ‘jumbled mess’ | Editorial
For one thing, the proposed changes would shift responsibility from the state to county elections officials.
Voting signs outside a polling place during Tampa's municipal election on March 7.
Voting signs outside a polling place during Tampa's municipal election on March 7. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published April 16, 2023

To watch Republican lawmakers, you’d think Florida elections were a corrupted mess, with people voting twice, partisans stuffing the ballot box and dead voters emerging from their graves. That’s ridiculous, of course, but it hasn’t stopped Republicans in Tallahassee from pushing another restrictive bill that further cracks down on legitimate voting.

SB 7050 would further unwind the voter-approved constitutional amendment aimed at clearing the way for felons to vote, while giving Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new elections police additional tools to prosecute bogus cases of fraud. The measure would also shift much of the responsibility for policing the voter rolls from the state to local governments, an admission of how badly Republicans in Tallahassee have fouled things up. The House has filed a related bill, and is expected to follow the Senate’s lead.

The legislation would muddy the already difficult process for felons seeking to regain the right to vote. After Amendment 4 was adopted with widespread bipartisan support in 2018, Florida lawmakers subsequently required that felons pay all court fees, fines and restitution before they could qualify. But many felons are in limbo because Florida has no central database of court fees, fines and restitution.

This bill would increase the confusion, as it requires county elections supervisors — instead of the state — to check with local court clerks to identify those convicted of a felony. But what if an ex-felon living in Hillsborough County committed a crime in, say, Manatee? Would a local elections supervisor be expected to check with 66 other county court clerks across Florida on every single application? And what would the state actually do in its lesser role to “coordinate” background checks?

Elections are a state function and a state responsibility. Fobbing this work onto local elections supervisors and court clerks invariably invites mistakes and delays. The Legislature created this requirement for felons when the state had no capability to deliver. Now it wants to wipe its hands of a jumbled mess that only promises to get worse.

The 98-page bill includes other mischief, too. It would expand the scope of Florida’s elections police force, allowing the unit to investigate not only suspected crimes, but “any election irregularity.” Voter registration groups would face new restrictions and higher fines for failing to file paperwork in a timely manner. The state would relax requirements for candidates and political committees to report their contributions and expenses. Voter cards issued by elections office would include a disclaimer that it was “for information purposes only,” not “legal verification” of one’s eligibility to vote. And if two or more mail ballots were returned in the same envelope, neither could be counted.

The bill includes several worthwhile provisions, including making the specific crime of harassing or threatening an election worker a third-degree felony. But most of the changes are an overreaction to the conspiracy crowd, and they amount to hypocrisy from a Legislature that talks up election integrity while shifting the job elsewhere. Elections supervisors and Senate sponsors need to negotiate in good faith and be frank about what the impacts will be to felons and voters in general. This is a recipe for hodge-podge elections that will weaken public confidence in the state’s voting system.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.