Testimony: FL’s new elections restrictions are driving local supervisors from office

Leon’s Mark Earley: ‘It’s become a very difficult work environment’

By: - February 15, 2022 5:21 pm

Ballot drop box in Florida’s state capital. Credit: leonvotes.gov

Some of the officials who supervise Florida elections are considering retiring under the threat of $25,000 fines if they make mistakes, according to testimony produced Tuesday in the federal trial over the GOP-dominated Legislature’s new voting restrictions.

Mark Early, supervisor of elections in Leon County, seat of Florida’s state government, offered that take during Day 13 of a trial on allegations by civil- and voting-rights groups that an election law passed in 2021 would disproportionately harm minority, elderly, and disabled voters. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker of Tallahassee is presiding over the Zoom trial.

The plaintiffs’ organizations include the League of Women Voters of Florida and the NAACP. State Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office is overseeing the law’s defense along with attorneys representing the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Mark Earley, supervisor of elections, Leon County. Credit: Leon Supervisor of Elections website

Earley is one of 67 county elections administrators in the state, each of whom is a named defendant in the case. Their trade group, Florida’s Elections Supervisors, hasn’t endorsed the law or come out openly against it.

Attorney Mark Herron asked Earley Tuesday whether his preparations for this year’s elections would be hampered if Walker enjoins particular provisions of the law in question, SB 90.

Early cited only one that would affect his preparations: an injunction against the $25,000 fine he’d be subject to under the law if he allows a mail-in ballot drop box to go unmonitored; blocking that might allow him to avoid double-staffing drop boxes in case a worker monitoring one has to take a break, he said.

But Early also spoke to the antagonism former President Donald Trump and fellow Republicans have whipped up regarding the security and integrity of U.S. elections. It was amid that atmosphere the Gov. Ron DeSantis pressed the Legislature to impose SB 90’s restrictions on access to mail-in ballots, drop boxes, voter registration through third-party groups, and more.

“Having that threat over our heads, I think, speaks volumes to a lot of people — supervisors, people that have latched onto disinformation out there about how you can trust our elections or not trust our elections,” Early said.

In fact, senior supervisors could leave their jobs under that threat, he said.

“There’s at least one, and really several more in the wings, that are either announcing retirements after this term and specifically stated the $25,000 fine is one more attack, essentially, on elections officials that they have to work under. It’s become a very difficult work environment.”

‘Post hoc’ claims

A point of contention has emerged regarding whether the state and GOP were raising post hoc rationalizations for the law — that is, after-the-fact justifications for changes enacted with more dubious motives.

Judge Walker promised Tuesday that the parties could debate that matter during closing arguments.

During her own testimony on Tuesday, Maria Matthews, director of the Florida Division of Elections within the Department of State, which oversees elections, described the law as a form of consumer protection since, for example, a late filing of a voter registration form could compromise the ability to cast a ballot.

Additionally, the division has heard complaints about such groups changing voters’ party registration without permission (a recent example of which emerged recently in Miami-Dade County, according to a Miami Herald report) and other forms of fraud, she said.

Even Gov. Ron DeSantis had his voter registration changed by a hacker to an address in Palm Beach County in 2020, Matthews noted. Anthony Steven Guevara drew probation following his  no-contest plea to elections and computer-crime charges, the Naples Daily New reported.

She noted complaints from voters about vote-by-mail applications submitted on their behalf, receiving ballots they had not requested, and ballots cast without their knowledge.

Matthews reiterated earlier evidence that a requirement that third-party groups deliver registration forms to the state or the county where the voter lives lifts an administrative burden on supervisors previously required to forward these forms. (A number of supervisors have testified that they agree with that assessment.)

Matthews added that the new law makes it easier for the supervisors to contact voters to clear up any problems in advance of elections.

Similarly, SB 90’s requirement that prospective voters provide a driver’s license, state ID, or Social Security number prevents malefactors from filing fraudulent requests for ballots based on publicly available information. It’s not unheard of for family members to do just that, Matthews testified.

And requiring voters to file requests for ballot every election cycle instead of two — in practice, every two years instead of four under the old law — is meant to prevent problems involving transient voters, meaning students, temporary workers, and others who move frequently without updating their records.

“So then, the ballot ends up going out to that address, or that student, who’s no longer there,” she said.

The shorter vote-by-mail authorization periods “makes the voter provide more current information each time they have to request a vote-by-mail ballot,” Matthews said. Additionally, the increased requirements for IDs ensures “that only the voter is the one that is asking for the ballot and voting the ballot.”

The state already had access to data from the DMV, Social Security, and ERIC — the Electronic Registration Information Center, which allows 31 states and the District of Columbia to compare voter data, Matthews conceded.

“However, that being said, there are times when that information does not come through, and therefore we still have outdated information in the [voter] book,” she added.

Under cross-examination by David Fox, an attorney representing the groups challenging the law, Matthews acknowledged that her office didn’t draft the law or publicly endorse it.

Asked whether the department helped “shape” the law, Matthews appeared to dodge the question, answering that the department “had a role in providing information to the Legislature, however they chose to use that information to develop that legislation.”

That earned a rebuke from Judge Walker. “It’s a very simple question, calls for a yes or no. Did your office help shape it, yes or no?” he told her.

He warned the parties “not to quibble,” adding that he would consider “how they answer” questions in weighing their testimony.

Fox then asserted that Matthews’ office hadn’t turned over information about legislation it did submit to the Legislature, notwithstanding that the plaintiffs had asked for it.

Fox reminded Matthews that the Republican-controlled Legislature has a history of inhibiting voting — for example, when it cut short early balloting in 2011 and caused long lines at the polls in 2012. By contrast, there were no long lines in 2020, when 4.8 million people voted by mail, 4.3 million voted early, and about 2 million voted in person on election day.

She insisted that might not be the only explanation for those shorter lines — “can’t make that correlation or jump,” Matthews said.

As for the attempted fraudulent change to Gov. DeSantis’ registration, Matthews acknowledged that it wasn’t a third-party voter registration organization that did it. “My understanding was that it was someone that got on the online [voter registration] system and made that change,” she said.

Fox elicited testimony from Matthews that not all complaints of voter fraud are valid — some may reflect “confusion on the part of the voter.” He showed her one complaint filed concerning a homeowners’ association — something her office wouldn’t investigate.

She acknowledged that it’s not illegal for third-party organizations to send people registration- or ballot request forms, even under SB 90, and that none of the reports her office has received about harassment of people waiting in line to vote involved groups offering food or water.

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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.