GOP lawmakers move to get rid of drop boxes for mailed ballots; election supervisors protest

By: - March 10, 2021 1:50 pm

Sen. Victor Torres, at right, speaks against changing mail-in balloting rules that worked well in 2020 but are opposed by Republicans, including sponsor Sen. Dennis Baxley, at the podium. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

Over the objections of current and past election supervisors, a Florida Senate panel on Wednesday voted to advance a plan to remove ballot drop boxes that were heavily used to collect mail-in ballots in the 2020 elections during the pandemic.

Former Sen. Alan Hays, a Republican who now is supervisor of elections for Lake County, said elections supervisors around the state oppose the removal of drop boxes and all other efforts to make voting by mail less convenient in Florida.

Hays described Florida’s recent elections as “superbly accomplished” in spite of the coronavirus pandemic and cutbacks last year in U.S. Postal Service operations that slowed ballot deliveries.

“Our association of supervisors has submitted 10 priorities … to improve the voting process. Nothing in this bill is on our list of suggestions,” Hays told members of the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee.

The debate over drop boxes is part of broader legislation on election reform being pushed by Republicans. Democrats, election officials and voting rights advocates are opposed to the reforms, saying, for example, that mail-in ballots have long been used around the country without resulting in significant election problems.

Nevertheless, former President Donald Trump and Republicans around the country have impugned mail-in balloting, even accusing election supervisors in Republican-led states such as Georgia of tolerating fraud for the sake of helping voters vote by mail amid the pandemic.

With 2022 and 2024 elections approaching, Republican lawmakers want to restrain voting by mail, which was heavily used in 2020 by Democratic voters. Democrats won the U.S. House and U.S. Senate and helped Democrat Joe Biden beat Trump. However, Republican voters prevailed in Florida, where they held the House and the Senate and favored Trump over Biden while widely casting mail-in ballots.

Bill sponsor Sen. Dennis Baxley, a north central Florida Republican, conceded when questioned that his proposed election reforms do not cure any known problems and that he did not consult with election supervisors — yet he argued his plan makes a good thing better.

“I don’t know of widespread complaints … Why wait for a debacle?” Baxley said.

Baxley’s legislation, introduced as SB 90, was amended in several ways since its original version, and on Wednesday, senators voted 4-2 on the newest version, which includes removing ballot drop boxes.

Hays said just one of the provisions proposed by Baxley would cost Florida elections offices $14 million to $16 million to implement, for no good reason, and would confuse voters who relied on the process in 2020 and expect to use it again in future elections.

Mark Earley, Leon County supervisor of elections and vice president of the state association of supervisors, said “drop boxes are the gold standard” for protecting ballots. He said removing them would do “a great disservice to our voters,” who turned out in record numbers to vote in elections last year.

Trish Neely, speaking for the League of Women Voters of Florida, told senators that removing drop boxes and otherwise making it harder to vote by mail is “voter suppression” at the state level, atop the “intentional manipulation” of the Postal Service last year to suppress mail-in balloting in the midst of the pandemic.

Brad Ashwell, Florida director of the national voting advocate organization All Voting Is Local, told senators, “This can’t be seen as anything but an attack on voting rights.”

Rich Templin, legislative policy director with the AFL-CIO of Florida, said Baxley’s bill seems scripted by former President Trump, who urged his supporters to vote in person and not by mail — and then was defeated in November by strong Democratic turnout that included heavy use of  mail-in ballots.

“It seems like a list of talking points espoused by, well, one formerly very powerful person,” Templin said, reminding the committee that more than 60 courts around the nation rejected Trump’s claims of voting fraud in the wake of his defeat.

Still others giving public testimony said that having less access to mail-in voting inhibits seniors and disabled people of both political parties who appreciate having multiple ways to vote.

No one submitted public testimony in support of Baxley’s measures.

The four Republicans on the committee voted in favor of Baxley’s bill, with the removal of drop boxes added on.

“I think this is a great step in the right direction,” said Sen. Joe Gruters, Republican committee member from Sarasota and Charlotte counties and chair of the Republican Party of Florida. Gruters said the success of Florida’s elections, headed up by Republican Secretary of State Laurel Lee, is no cause to rest on laurels. None of the other Republican members spoke on the bill.

The two Democrats voted no.

“I just don’t see any need for this bill. There has been no evidence of fraud,” said Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat. “This just seems like a big overreach to me.”

Sen. Victor Torres, a Democrat representing Osceola and Orange counties, said Baxley’s bill is designed to obstruct voting.

“We don’t need to pose obstacles for our voters,” Torres said, adding that all of Florida’s elections supervisors, with the possible exception of one, oppose the GOP-led effort to curtail voting by mail.

Baxley’s bill next goes to the powerful Rules Committee, which is expected to advance it to a vote in the full Senate, which is, like the Rules Committee, controlled by Republicans.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.