TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) —
After praising Florida’s elections as a national model, the state’s Republican lawmakers moved to rewrite a litany of rules they said would enhance the integrity of future elections despite critics who called that a partisan attempt to keep some voters from the ballot box.
The influence of voters who cast ballots by mail wasn’t lost in the nationally watched debate in a state that has significant sway in the country’s balance of power.
Republicans and Democrats alike have praised Florida’s most recent elections as other key states floundered on election night in November.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has pushed for changes in the state’s election laws as part of an effort by Republicans nationwide to overhaul rules after last November’s presidential contest in which then-President Donald Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden.
Much of the debate focused on vote-by-mail ballots and how they are collected and returned.
Republicans called the GOP-written measure “guardrails” against fraud, while Democrats argued that the new rules were designed to make it more inconvenient, if not more difficult, for some to cast ballots — particularly among Black voters and less experienced voters.
The measure passed Thursday — and headed to the governor for his signature — was far different from some of the more severe measures proposed initially, including an outright ban on ballot drop boxes and a requirement to present identification when dropping off those ballots.
Still, Democrats had Georgia on their minds in decrying the rule changes that remained, including a prohibition against groups that distribute food and water to voters waiting to vote — although the prohibition would not apply to elections officials.
“We’ve never said that any nonprofit organization was trying to influence folks,” said Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a Republican who helped secure the bill’s passage. “What we’re saying in the bill is that the intent of the no-solicitation zone in that language is to make sure that nobody is trying to influence the vote while they are in line.”
Georgia’s sweeping rewrite of its election rules has prompted alarm among Democrats and voting rights advocates in Florida and elsewhere, who object to new identification requirements that critics said would make once-routine changes to voter registration information more inconvenient.
“We had, as our the Republican governor said, one of the best operated elections in the country, and yet today, the majority party through last minute maneuvers passed a voter suppression bill past a voter suppression bill mimicking what took place in Georgia,” said Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani.
If signed into the law, drop boxes would only be available when early voting sites are open. In some counties, voters could use the drop boxes at anytime of the day to submit their completed ballots.
A central focus of the debate is on voting by mail, including the use of drop boxes and so-called “ballot harvesting.” The latter is a practice Republicans have long sought to limit because of their worry that outside groups could tamper with the completed ballots they collect.
Additionally, those drop boxes would have to be supervised by elections officials.
Not long ago, Republicans had the upper hand on voting by mail. But Democrats worries that the pandemic would keep voters from casting on election day, prompting the party to make an aggressive push to get people to vote early, particularly by mail.
Last fall, Florida Democrats outvoted Republicans by mail by 680,000 more absentee ballots.
More than 11 million Floridians cast ballots in the November elections, with 4.8 million voting by mail — a record number that accounted for about 44% of the votes cast statewide. Trump still carried Florida by about 3%, but the Democratic advantage in absentee voting prompted worry among Republicans who once had the upper hand in voting by mail.