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Advocacy groups question voter revamp bills

By CJ HADDAD - | Mar 31, 2021

cjhaddad@breezenewspapers.com

Florida lawmakers are working to overhaul the state’s vote-by-mail system as two Republican-sponsored bills from both the Senate and House advanced through committees this past week.

The proposed changes would either eliminate or alter the way drop boxes for vote-by-mail ballots are secured going forward, as well as limit the ways Floridians can obtain their vote-by-mail ballots. Some proposed changes would also require voter signatures to be posted online, which has raised some flags when it comes to cost and potential identity theft.

On Tuesday, voting advocacy groups including the League of Women Voters of Florida, the NAACP, Common Cause, All Voting is Local and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said both bills are clear instances of voter suppression and could cost taxpayers unnecessarily.

This past election saw a 77% voter turnout statewide (6 million by mail), the highest in 65 years. In February, Gov. Ron DeSantis praised the election, calling it “transparent” and “efficient.” Now, voting advocacy groups are scratching their heads as to why Florida Republicans are looking to change what seemingly worked well.

“The turnout proved the success of the election,” said Patti Brigham of the League of Women’s Voters of Florida. “There was no cheating, fraud, or problems with voter roles. Vote counting went well, and was quick and efficient. All of it was validated by careful audits and recounts. Yet, our governor and our one-party-controlled legislature now claim a need for major election reform. Why change what is working well? These changes are completely unnecessary and all 67 supervisors of elections agree.”

Senate Bill 90 first arose from the Ethics and Elections Committee sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala and recently passed through the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee. It needs just one more passage through the Rules Committee before heading to the floor.

SB 90 would eliminate drop boxes all together and wipe out all previous vote-by-mail ballot requests currently on file and require residents refill their request.

In SB 90, to request a mail ballot, registered voters will have to provide their drivers license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number.

If SB 90 were to pass, the only option voters would have to return a mail ballot would be traveling to their county elections offices or by mailing it early enough to give the U.S. Postal Service enough time.

On Monday, March 22, the House Public Integrity and Elections Committee approved a proposal sponsored by Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill (HB 7041) that would also change voting parameters for Sunshine State residents.

This bill would require round-the-clock guarding of drop boxes by law enforcement, as well as require elections officials to post voter’s signatures online along with other information include name, address, date of birth and more.

The bill also requires: a driver’s license or Social Security number to change voter registrations, limit who can pick up or drop off a ballot to immediate family and that mail ballot requests would cover only one, not two election cycles. Both the House and Senate bills place new restrictions on who can pick up ballots for individuals. Voter advocates point out many seniors in Florida do not have family close by wonder how this would effect those residents casting their ballot.

HB 7041 will have to pass through two more committees before seeing the floor.

In a letter penned to state leaders from the Florida Supervisors of Elections Executive Committee, they stated, “Florida’s Supervisors of Elections feel strongly that we must be advocates for our voters. It’s our intention that all eligible voters have convenient and ample opportunities to vote, and that the elections in which they cast their ballots are safe and secure. Calling for unnecessary election reforms doesn’t just endanger our ability to conduct elections efficiently and effectively. It also risks destroying the voter confidence that we have worked so hard to earn.”

Voting advocacy group All Voting is Local State Director Brad Ashwell said this past election ran smoothly and that this new legislation is unnecessary.

“It really doesn’t do anything to make voting easier for voter,” he said.

Ashwell spoke to the House bill provision that states identification would be needed to drop off vote-by-mail ballots at drop box locations (1.5 million votes cast this way in 2020) at elections offices.

“It’s going to undermine the entire purpose of secure drop boxes. It’s going to cause long lines, delays for voters simply trying to drop off their ballot,” he said. “We don’t require someone to show their ID to drop off their vote-by-mail ballot in a mailbox. There are also no uniform training standards for this. The House bill currently calls on law enforcement to play this role in guarding drop boxes. That can be very intimidating to voters.

“What happens to a voter who is in a drop box line at 7 p.m. on election night?”

As far as signatures go, elections offices have a bank of signatures from each voter on file and call back to any previous signature when verifying a vote. The new provisions would allow only the latest signature to be accepted.

“Maybe the most recent signature doesn’t match because the voter signed something quickly with their thumb at the DMV or just didn’t realize the implications of their signature and disqualify their vote-by-mail ballot,” Ashwell said. “We don’t believe there’s a problem that even necessitates any of this. There’s no evidence that there’s a need to do anything being done in these bills.”

When it comes to the cost of the taxpayers and state funds, Sylvia Albert, Director of Voting and Elections at Common Cause, said Rep. Ingoglia when asked could not speak to the potential costs of the bill.

New costs associated with the bill would include staffing drop boxes 24 hours a day, processing vote-by-mail requests yearly instead of bi-yearly and the posting of every vote-by-mail signature online.

“The Supervisors of Elections also pointed out that the proposed requirement to post every vote-by-mail signature, and the most recent signature on file, would be an enormous operational and financial burden which would quadruple the workload involved in signature verification, not including hiring the cost of hiring and training additional staff,” Albert said.

Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU Florida called the bill “dangerous.”

“The concept, the ideal and the reality of democracy of Florida are all under attack from these dangerous bills,” he said. “The supporters (of the bills) can claim all that they’d like that it’s about election security and integrity, but the truth is plain for all of us to see. (These bills) are intended to make it harder for Florida’s citizens to vote.”