GOP ignored danger to minorities in rushing election restrictions, Democrats testify

‘It seemed like a tactic designed to, kind of, pass the bill because you can’

By: - February 7, 2022 12:08 pm

State Rep. Anna Eskamani. Credit: Florida House

Republicans in the Florida Legislature, in their rush to erect barriers to voting, ignored opposition by local elections supervisors and evidence that the changes would especially harm disadvantaged voters, two legislative Democrats testified Monday.

Reps. Carlos Guillermo Smith and Anna Eskamani, both of Orange County, reiterated evidence presented last week that the House GOP leadership pushed a massive rewrite of SB 90, the legislation at issue, to the House floor and into law in 2021.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith. Credit: Florida House of Representatives.

In so doing, they blocked Smith’s amendment that would have addressed “ghost candidates” — a form of election fraud documented during the 2020 general election — he testified.

And they ignored Florida’s history of Jim Crow laws disenfranchising Black people.

“There doesn’t seem to be an understanding that this is part of Florida’s history and still currently. I never heard them dispute it, but I also never heard them bring it up actually bring it up as a concern,” Eskamani testified.

And did they offer evidence that the bill would not harm minority communities, disabilities, and other disadvantaged people?

“No evidence was provided whatsoever,” she said.

The testimony came as Week Two opened in a challenge to SB 90 before U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee, hearing the case via Zoom with the public and press dialing in by telephone conference. An array of voting- and civil-rights organization seek to overturn the law, arguing it makes voter-registration drives, voting by mail, and rendering basic assistance to voters in line needlessly difficult, resulting in voting suppression.

Defending the law is Attorney General Ashley Moody and the state and national Republican Party. Although Florida’s county supervisors of election are named defendants, because they would have to enforce it, their organization came out against the legislation while it was pending.

Last week, Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections Christina White testified that she viewed the law as unnecessary and that it makes it harder to administer elections. Additionally, organizations running voter-registration operations testified that the law makes their jobs harder, too.

Also last week, Rep. Geraldine Thompson, also of Orange County, described how the Republican majority introduced a “strike-all amendment” — in other words, a complete rewrite of the bill — early on the morning that the full House was to take up the bill in a floor session.

On Monday, Smith and Eskamani testified that the procedural move is not uncommon during committee hearings, when the public remain free to comment, but virtually unprecedented once debate has moved to the House floor.

It made it impossible to fully vet the new language, Smith said.

But even in committee, Republicans rushed the legislation in an “abnormal” way, sharply restricting public comment, not to mention questions and debate by committee members, Smith said.

“There was even an instance where a member of the committee was mid-question on the bill and her questions were interrupted by the chair. She was not able to finish asking her question and the committee abruptly moved on and rushed through the proceedings without a proper vetting of the legislation,” he said.

The strike-all floor amendment effectively erased any public input the legislation received during committee hearings, including by elections supervisors, Eskamani said.

“It seemed like a tactic designed to, kind of, pass the bill because you can,” she said.

On cross-examination, defense attorney Amber Nunally focused on an amendment Smith offered to address the ghost-candidate matter — in other words, the promotion of no-party candidates to influence election outcomes. An investigation is underway into whether such tactics tilted three state legislative races in favor of Republicans in 2020, according to reports by newspapers including the Tampa Bay Times.

Didn’t bill sponsor Blaise Ingoglia, a Republican from Hernando County, tell Smith that his amendment was “poorly drafted?” she asked.

Yes, he acknowledged, but Ingolia clearly wasn’t “legitimately interested in working with me on (it).”

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.