Vote-by-mail overhaul heads to Florida House floor

Trump’s win over Biden by 3 percentage points in Florida --- a landslide by Florida standards --- prompted Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state GOP leaders to repeatedly brag about the handling of the November election, as other states’ results were delayed amid an onslaught of mail-in ballots.

But despite Florida’s hiccup-free election, Republican legislative leaders maintain that changes to the state’s vote-by-mail processes are needed to combat fraud and ensure that mail-in ballots are secure.

The wide-ranging House proposal would address ballot drop boxes, mail-in ballot signature verification and a host of other election-related issues.

The House State Affairs Committee rushed through more than a dozen amendments on Monday, adopting changes offered by bill sponsor Blaise Ingoglia, a Spring Hill Republican who is a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

With time running out on the committee hearing, Chairman Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, did not allow public testimony and limited lawmakers’ remarks to 30 seconds before a party-line vote in favor of the bill (HB 7041), which is now ready to go to the House floor.

"Last election cycle, Florida administered one of the smoothest elections in the nation and was praised as a model for how elections should be run," Ingoglia said. "But we should use every election as opportunities to look back and identify things that we can do better."

But Democrats have likened the proposed elections revamp to Jim Crow-era laws designed to make it more difficult for Black and Hispanic voters to cast ballots.

"I believe this bill sets up deliberate barriers, not just for people of color, but for all voters," Rep. Robin Bartleman, D-Weston, said before Monday’s committee vote. "I just want to say this is going to have huge unintended consequences. … So just remember that although this may be pointed at one party or one group, which I kind of feel it is, it impacts everyone and all of us are going to be penalized."

Republicans throughout the country are making it more difficult for voters to cast ballots by mail, a process adopted in Florida more than two decades ago.

Florida Republicans, among other things, are seeking to curtail elections supervisors’ use of drop boxes, change the process for verifying mail-in ballot signatures and make it more difficult for voters to change registrations.

The House bill approved Monday eased some proposed restrictions included in previous versions of the measure.

For example, the revamped bill would allow elections supervisors to use eight years’ worth of signatures on file with their offices to verify mail-in ballot certificates. An earlier version of the measure would have restricted the signature matches to four years.

"The key here is to make sure that there is not an infinite amount of signatures that you can match it to. I mean, we just don’t think it’s right that you can go back 50 years and have 50 different iterations of signatures if you have an older voter," Ingoglia said.

The package also would make it more difficult to drop off someone else’s mail-in ballot, requiring an "attestation" that people have permission to submit other voters’ ballots at drop boxes.

The use of drop boxes became an issue 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.

The proposal approved by the House panel Monday would allow supervisors to use secure ballot drop boxes at sites identified at least 30 days before elections. The boxes would have to be manned by employees of the supervisor’s offices, and locations could not be changed within 30 days of elections.

Democrats asked Ingoglia how much it would cost supervisors to staff drop boxes, but he said the Legislature is not setting aside funds to cover the costs.

"There is no budget for it. We’re expecting the supervisor of elections to be as efficient as possible and figure that out," the Republican lawmaker said.

The revamped bill would require drop boxes --- used by approximately 1.5 million Florida voters in November --- to be "geographically located so as to provide all voters in the county with an equal opportunity to cast a ballot, insofar as is practicable."

The elections overhaul has drawn widespread criticism from voting-rights groups and Democrats, who maintain the changes are unnecessary and are designed to limit voters’ access to the polls in advance of the 2022 election when DeSantis will be up for re-election.

But Ingoglia pushed back against the criticism on Monday, pointing out that Floridians have a variety of ways to vote, including in-person early voting, mail-in voting and voting on Election Day.

"We are not restricting anybody’s access to the ballot. We have 45 days of voting in the state of Florida, three different ways of voting. Anyone who says that we’re restricting the ballot, I’m sorry, it’s just not accurate," he said.

The Senate version of the bill (SB 90) is scheduled to go before the Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday and then would be ready for the full Senate.

Republicans throughout the country are targeting mail-in ballots after the surge in voting by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic. 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.