TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Republican legislative leaders for the second year in a row are targeting mail-in voting, this time with a proposal one supervisor of elections called "a recipe for disaster."
The House and Senate this month began moving forward with far-reaching measures that would create a statewide elections security force, require elections supervisors to scrub the voting rolls more often and make voters provide personal identification data on mail-in ballots.
Under current law, voters enclose completed mail-in ballots inside "secrecy" envelopes or sleeves before putting them inside another envelope to be mailed to county supervisors of elections or submitted at drop boxes manned by supervisors’ staff.
The proposals (SB 524, HB 7067) would require voters to put their double-enveloped ballots inside a third envelope and mark the last four digits of their driver’s license numbers, Social Security numbers, or state ID numbers – whichever number is on file with the election supervisor’s office – to be counted.
Currently, "secrecy" envelopes accompanying mail-in ballots do not have to be returned to supervisors for the votes to be deemed valid.
Lake County Supervisor of Elections Alan Hays, a Republican who is a former state senator, called requiring voters to use a "certification" envelope and provide the identification number on file with the supervisor’s office "a recipe for disaster."
"Getting voters to follow instructions is not easy," Hays told the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee on Feb. 1. "If you think they’re going to follow the instructions with all of these envelopes, you’ve got another thought coming."
The Senate panel approved the measure, which faces one more committee before the full Senate could vote on it. A House committee signed off on a similar bill (HB 7057) last week.
During a news conference Monday, voting-rights advocates blasted what they characterized as the Republican-controlled Legislature’s latest attempt to make it harder for Floridians to cast their ballots.
"If it sounds confusing, that’s because that’s the purpose," Abdelilah Skhir, voting rights policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said.
Florida voters already have to provide the last four digits of the identification on file with the supervisors’ office to request mail-in ballots, a provision that was included in an elections bill (SB 90) passed last year.
A number of voting-rights organizations filed federal lawsuits challenging the 2021 law, alleging that it was intended to make it more difficult for Black and Hispanic voters to cast ballots by mail. An ongoing trial in the case is scheduled to wrap up this week.
The requirement that people provide the correct identification to vote by mail and include the certification envelope when returning mail-in ballots could be a challenge for older voters and voters with certain disabilities, said Brad Ashwell, state director of the group All Voting is Local.
"It’s going to take a process that’s already fairly confusing to people and make it exponentially more confusing. It’s going to lead to a lot of extra paper and envelopes on the kitchen counter," Ashwell told The News Service of Florida in a phone interview Monday.
But House bill sponsor Daniel Perez, a Miami Republican slated to take over as House speaker following the 2024 elections, defended the measure.
"So we do believe that this would actually make it easier, although on the surface it may seem more difficult. We believe that the process is actually going to be simpler … for the elderly, and at the same time it would be safer," Perez told the House Public Integrity & Elections Committee on Feb. 7. "The way it would work is the secrecy envelope would go inside the certificate and then the certificate envelope would go inside of the mailing envelope as it would go out."
Perez said the "great thing" about the bill is that voters whose identification on the mail-in ballots does not match the information on file will have an opportunity to "cure" their ballots, a process now in use for voters whose signatures on mail-in ballots don’t match signatures on file. Voters can "cure" ballots by filling out affidavits and returning them to supervisors’ offices.
But others predict the "cure" process and ensuring voters provide the correct ID numbers will be problematic, because many people, including older Floridians who first registered to vote decades ago, don’t have any of the required identification numbers on file with elections offices.
State Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews recently testified that more than 400,000 Floridians don’t have a Social Security number, driver’s license or state ID number associated with their voter registration.
Hays told the Senate committee that he sent notices to about 11,000 Lake County voters who didn’t have any of those numbers on file. The supervisor said he has heard back from only 5,000 of those voters.
Roughly 6.5 percent of Leon County voters don’t have any of those numbers on file, Supervisor Mark Earley told the News Service. And Broward County Supervisor of Elections Joe Scott recently said that about 70,000 voters in his county lacked any of those forms of identification on record.
League of Women Voters of Florida President Cecile Scoon equated the proposed vote-by-mail changes to literacy tests used to keep Black people from voting before the national Voting Rights Act was passed in the 1960s.
"If you don’t sign those certificates in the right way if you put your signature on the wrong envelope, you lose. You put the wrong four digits on those envelopes, you lose. You don’t put all the envelopes in there, you lose," Scoon said. "They’re making vote by mail onerous, difficult, and hard to do."
But Senate bill sponsor Travis Hutson told the Senate committee that it should be easy for people to provide their ID on mail-in ballots because the same information is needed to request one.
"I don’t know why it’s so difficult for you to give your information again. So I don’t know if it’s going to create the chilling effect people are talking about," Hutson, R-St. Augustine said. "So I don’t think what we’re asking for is too much for them to identify themselves and put in additional envelopes. And I do like to give our voters a lot of credit in their intelligence. I don’t think they’re that dumb. But if for some reason the supervisors want to work on comfort language or some way to make sure we can identify these in a secure way, I’m completely open to that."