Florida Senate could scale back elections bill

The Florida Senate sponsor of a sweeping elections package is backing down from an effort to do away with ballot drop boxes, but critics maintain the proposal still contains unnecessary provisions that would make it harder for Floridians to vote by mail.

Florida Republican leaders are pushing election law changes as GOP-led statehouses throughout the country are considering or passing measures designed to curtail mail-in voting following former President Donald Trump’s defeat to President Joe Biden in November.

The Florida Senate proposal (SB 90), sponsored by Ocala Republican Dennis Baxley, has called for making a host of changes to the state’s vote-by-mail process and banning ballot drop boxes, used by more than 1.1 million voters in the state in November.

But an amendment filed by Baxley on Tuesday would remove or ease numerous restrictions in the bill. 

Baxley’s amendment, which will be considered Wednesday by the Senate Rules Committee, would bring the Senate package closer to a House version and is more palatable to voting-rights advocates.

"This is the best version of the bill yet. But it’s important to remember that none of this is necessary. It’s a reaction to voter turnout," Brad Ashwell, state director of All Voting is Local, told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday. 

Ashwell said the number of Black voters who cast ballots by mail in Florida last year doubled --- to more than 500,000 --- from 2016 and 2018. Black voters also cast 11.4 percent of all vote-by-mail ballots in Florida in 2020, compared to 8.9 percent in 2016, he said.

"There’s no need for this bill. It’s very much designed to reinforce that national narrative that we have problems with our voting systems for the sake of justifying barriers to voting," Ashwell said.

Election supervisors’ use of drop boxes sparked a debate in the weeks leading up to the presidential election, as local officials sparred with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration over locations and whether boxes were required to be manned by supervisors’ personnel.

Under the House measure, supervisors could continue to use drop boxes at their offices if they are "continuously monitored in person" during regular office hours. Those drop boxes could be made available after hours only if they are "secured from tampering and monitored by video surveillance." Copies of the videos would have to be provided to candidates or political parties within 24 hours of requests.

Baxley’s amendment would limit the use of drop boxes to the hours of early voting and does not contain an after-hours video-recording provision.

The amendment also does not include sections of the House plan that would require people to show identification when submitting ballots at drop boxes or sign an "attestation" that the ballots are theirs or belong to someone who’s given them written permission to handle the ballots.

Both Baxley’s proposal and the House bill, sponsored by Spring Hill Republican Blaise Ingoglia, would subject supervisors to $25,000 civil penalties if drop boxes are available when early voting is not underway.

Baxley’s amendment also mirrors voter-registration changes included in the House proposal. Both plans would make it more difficult for people who do not have driver’s licenses, state-issued identification cards or Social Security numbers to register to vote online or make changes to their voter registrations. 

The two proposals differ, however, on who could provide food, water or other items to voters who are waiting in line. 

The House plan, which underwent an overhaul before being approved by a House committee on Thursday, would prohibit anyone from "engaging in any activity with the intent to influence or effect of influencing a voter" within a 150-foot no-solicitation zone outside polling places. Critics said the proposal was too vague.

Baxley’s amendment would prohibit people from "giving or attempting to give any item" to a voter inside the zone but includes an exemption for elections’ office employees or volunteers, who would be allowed to provide "non-partisan assistance to voters … such as, but not limited to, giving items to voters."

Like the House measure, Baxley’s amendment would allow individuals to drop off mail-in ballots for immediate family members, including grandchildren, as well as two other people. 

More than 4.8 million Floridians cast ballots by mail in the November elections, compared to about 2.6 million in 2018, according to the state Division of Elections. Democrats relied far more heavily than Republicans on voting by mail in November, but the GOP in Florida depended on mail-in ballots as the party made electoral gains over the past two decades.

DeSantis and other GOP leaders praised Florida’s handling of the presidential election, but Republicans maintain that the state needs to clamp down on vote-by-mail procedures.

"The intent of this bill is to continue Florida’s successful track record of securing our voter access and election transparency," Ingoglia, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said before the House Appropriations Committee approved the House package (HB 7041) in a party-line vote on Thursday.

Both the House and Senate measures would require voters to request mail-in ballots every two years. The House measure and Baxley’s amendment would "grandfather" in requests made before the 2020 election. Under current law, requests are good for two general elections, which occur every two years.

AARP Florida warned Tuesday that some of the proposed changes "would negatively and disproportionately impact" older voters.

"It’s concerning that Florida plans to enact changes to the election system that would complicate voting for older Floridians," Jeff Johnson, the organization’s state director, said in a news release. "AARP opposes any changes to voting laws that create new restrictions or hurdles for older residents."