DeSantis enacts law reforming FL elections; opponents sue, and citizens will face voting hurdles

By: - May 6, 2021 1:52 pm

At the Leon County Courthouse, 2020 voters could vote early in person or by dropping their ballots in a drop box. Credit: Diane Rado

In a sweeping voting reform law enacted Thursday by Gov. Ron DeSantis, Floridians will see far less access to vote-by-mail drop boxes, fewer people able to help voters return their mail-in ballots, and restrictions at the polls on giving food or even water to a voter, unless an election worker provides the sustenance.

Those are just a few of the hurdles Floridians face now that DeSantis has signed the reforms into law. The governor and GOP leaders touted the new law, saying the reforms would bolster voter confidence in Florida’s elections.

But the law is already facing federal court challenges, citing voter suppression, with lawsuits filed Thursday against Florida Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody and Florida’s 67 Supervisors of Elections.

The elections supervisors, who hailed the 2020 election in Florida as accurate and efficient, have been against the new law from the start. Democrats in the Legislature have been fiery critics, as well as voting-rights and civil-liberties organizations.

As for Florida politics, the campaigns are already in gear for the 2022 and 2024 elections against the backdrop of the new law, which takes effect immediately.

“The legislation has a deliberate and disproportionate impact on elderly voters, voters with disabilities, students, and communities of color. It’s a despicable attempt by a one-party-ruled legislature to choose who can vote in our state and who cannot. It’s undemocratic, unconstitutional, and un-American,” said League President Patricia Brigham in announcing the League’s legal action, filed with Black Voters Matter Fund, the Florida Alliance of Retired Americans, and several individual voters.

Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Nikki Fried, Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, said her office intends to file a brief in support of that lawsuit.

The Florida State Conference of the NAACP, Disability Rights Florida, and Common Cause also filed suit, specifically against Secretary of State Lee, who is the state’s top elections administrator. That case charges that Florida’s new voting restrictions violate provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

“Curtailment of the availability of VBM [voting by mail] removes an important option for vulnerable voters with no legitimate purpose, and will discriminatorily harm Black and Latino voters, voters with disabilities, and other voters who rely on VBM ballots to access the franchise,” that lawsuit says.

At the national level, the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, announced it, too, will fight the new law in court.

“LULAC has decided to sue the State of Florida over these laws and ask the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Republican sponsors of these bills for violation of civil and criminal laws. These changes are deliberately designed to affect mostly people of color and are being enacted at the direction of Governor Ron DeSantis,” said LULAC President Domingo Garcia.

Critics in Florida and nationally were quick to denounce DeSantis for signing the reforms into law despite widespread opposition and calls for him to veto it.

“Today, Floridians became the latest victims of the GOP’s sham crusade to limit Constitutionally-protected voting rights on baseless claims of widespread voter fraud. This morning’s showboat for-FOX News-only bill signing effectively clenched Republicans’ grip on our state’s election system, enacting oppressive measures to restrict voter access and empower partisan poll watchers. Democrats will fight to restore access to ensure every single voice and vote count, because Floridians deserve better than this,” said Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book of Broward County and Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami-Dade Democrat, in a joint statement.

The “showboat” remark denounced DeSantis’ signing of the bill at a private event hosted by supporters of former President Donald Trump, where the only media allowed in was Fox News, DeSantis’ favorite outlet.

Democratic Senators Janet Cruz of Hillsborough County and Annette Taddeo of Miami-Dade also condemned the new law and the way DeSantis signed it.

“Governor DeSantis shamefully chose to sign an unnecessary and antidemocratic election bill into law in front of FOX News cameras this morning. This bill, now Florida Law, is filled with bad public policy to limit voting access and was only strong-armed through the Florida Legislature as a ploy to build his national profile ahead of the 2024 Presidential election,” Cruz said.

Taddeo, of Colombian descent, said: “In the clearest sign of his authoritarian leadership, Governor Ron DeSantis locked the doors to keep the media out. … During the 2020 elections, voters were told repeatedly that if they voted for Democrats, Florida would become the next Cuba or Venezuela, but in a cruel irony, it is our GOP governor – now vying for re-election – who resembles these authoritarian regimes.”

Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat representing parts of Broward and Dade counties, said the new law resurrects Jim Crow-era abuses of voting rights.

“This blatant voter suppression is Jim Crow 2.0 and will make it harder for voters – from low-income rural white communities to the elderly to communities of color – to have their voices heard. It is clearly part of a coordinated targeted assault strategy as Florida joins a long list of states pursuing similar disenfranchisement efforts in recent months,” Jones said.

Even the White House chimed in, with Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre saying Florida is “moving in the wrong direction” and pandering to the “Big Lie.”

“The 2020 election was one of the most secure elections in American history.  There’s no legitimate reason to change the rules right now to make it harder to vote; that’s built on a lie,” Jean-Pierre told reporters in a press briefing. “The only reason to change the rules right now is if you don’t like who voted, and that should be out of bounds.

The White House and President Joe Biden support expanded access to voting, as proposed in House Resolution 1, the “For the People Act” setting voting standards all states would have to meet or exceed.

Security or obstacles?

The package of new election laws forces Florida elections supervisors to cut back on use of ballot drop boxes – at risk of personally incurring a $25,000 fine for non-compliance – and requires voters who want to vote by mail to request those ballots twice as frequently as they do now.

To prevent professional “ballot harvesting” — gathering ballots on a large scale — the new law largely prohibits anyone except relatives from handling a voters’ mail-in ballot on his or her behalf. That makes voting harder for shut-ins who want help picking up or delivering their ballots.  It also puts new rules on voter-registration drives, signature verification, counting of ballots, observing the counting, and reporting the outcomes.

The League states in its lawsuit that its tradition of hosting “Party at the Polls” events providing food and water to encourage voter turnout, would be prohibited. Also, its members would be banned from assisting voters by transporting their mail-in ballots for them, and they would be required at League-sponsored voter-registration events to issue a mandated “warning” that the League, as a third-party organization, “might not deliver” the voter registration and that voters could register by other means.

“Such a ‘warning’ will undermine the League’s important voter registration efforts by expressly (and falsely) conveying to voters that the League cannot be trusted to deliver their application,” the lawsuit says.

Black Voters Matter Fund, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, calls the new law the “Voter Suppression bill” that will strategically confuse voters and undermine its efforts to expand minority voting.

“As a result of the Voter Suppression Bill, which threatens to undermine the organization’s mission, Black Voters Matter must divert scarce resources away from its other policy priorities toward efforts to ensure that voters, and communities of color in particular, can navigate the restrictions to their voting options imposed by the Voter Suppression Bill,” Black Voters Matter argues in the lawsuit.

“The Voter Suppression Bill also appears to effectively prohibit the type of civic engagement and assistance that Black Voters Matter has previously provided to Florida voters and intends to provide again in upcoming elections.”

Another plaintiff, Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, charges that the new law will force it to spend time and money re-educating its members on how to comply with the myriad new requirements, as soon as this summer when elections are scheduled in some municipalities.

Further, the alliance says, “Most of the Florida Alliance’s members are between 65 and 85 years of age and many have disabilities. Given these realities, the Florida Alliance’s members are especially likely to be burdened by the Challenged Provisions, which impose obstacles on access to vote-by-mail ballots and may restrict the assistance they can receive at their polling location.”

Among the individuals signing onto the lawsuit is Alan Madison, described as a Navy veteran who lives in Indian River County and in 2020 delivered his mail-in ballot to an official drop box. “In upcoming elections, both the Drop-Box Restrictions and Vote-by-Mail Repeat Request Requirement will make it more difficult for Mr. Madison to cast a vote-by-mail ballot, as Mr. Madison will now have to submit additional requests for vote-by-mail ballots to receive them and will also have reduced opportunities to access a drop box,” the lawsuit says.

The new law prohibits election supervisors from providing ballot drop boxes around their counties except during early-voting hours. The only drop boxes provided outside periods of early voting must be located at a permanent voting site and staffed in-person at all times. Supervisors who do anything more would be subject to $25,000 fines.

The law’s backers said that would rule out the possibility of anyone tampering with the boxes and the ballots inside. Critics noted there was no evidence of that occurring, and that U.S. Postal Service mailboxes are far less secure.

“The Governor, state legislators, local election officials, and the Secretary of State all publicly praised the state’s voting process for its safety and security, repeatedly calling it a model for the country. Nevertheless, just a few months later, the Legislature moved to enact sweeping omnibus legislation (“SB 90” or the “Voter Suppression Bill”) that will make it harder for lawful Florida voters to participate in the State’s elections,” says the lawsuit filed in U.S. district court in Tallahassee.

Voter confidence

Republican backers of the new elections law tout it as ensuring the integrity of elections and preventing voting fraud that was alleged but remains unproven in the 2020 elections, when former President Donald Trump was defeated and blamed it on fraudulent elections.

DeSantis and his Republican colleagues, including Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, celebrated the signing of Senate Bill 90 into law.

“Floridians can rest assured that our state will remain a leader in ballot integrity. Elections should be free and fair, and these changes will ensure this continues to be the case in the Sunshine State,” DeSantis said in the announcement Thursday morning.

In the same announcement, Simpson and Sprowls both said the new law would bolster voter confidence in Florida’s elections.

“We all lose when people have no confidence in the integrity of an election. That’s what we want to avoid,” Simpson wrote.

Critics say Florida’s well-run 2020 election speaks for itself and that it is the Republican Party that is stoking fears about election fraud.

Florida’s League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Common Cause, Black Voters Matter, Faith in Florida and many other organizations that promote voting rights and civil rights have stressed that more than 60 courts across the nation last fall ruled against Republican claims of voting fraud in 2020, yet the baseless claims persist.

Even today, six months since the general election and four months since the “Stop The Steal” rally and insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol, skeptical Republicans in Arizona are recounting votes. Late Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a warning to Arizona state leaders that the legislatively commissioned recount in Maricopa County by Sarasota-based Cyber Ninjas, a private contractor with no official authority to possess official ballots, may violate federal voting laws.

Even before signing Senate Bill 90 into law, the DeSantis campaign for re-election released an ad Wednesday alluding to election fraud and claiming that a Democratic challenger would, among other things, refuse to prevent it.

“… And forget about Election Integrity,” the ad says in part, urging readers to rush a donation to Friends of Ron DeSantis.

Legislation such as Senate Bill 90 has passed or is sponsored by Republican lawmakers in 47 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Note: This report was updated to add comments from the White House.

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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.