Election laws: FL Senate Dems fight changes they say are built on fear tactics

GOP senators OK bill anyway, saying no election can be ‘too secure’

By: - February 24, 2022 5:36 pm

Republican Sen. Travis Hutson. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

Black state senators on Thursday condemned plans to further tighten how Florida regulates voters — including creating an elections police force — with one of them describing the effort as rife with “fear tactics” built on misinformation.

“Fear tactics is what divides people. And much of that is what’s in part of this bill [Senate Bill 524],” Democrat Audrey Gibson of Duval County said during a meeting of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“We know what this is, and we know why it is. … It’s creating more and more confusion in our elections process, rather than less.”

Likewise, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida testified that Black voters have good cause to fear law-enforcement officers in connection with voting, alluding to Jim Crow-era intimidation.

“I think we’re all aware, there are people with living memories who were mistreated by government officials — sheriffs and others — who threatened them, threatened their jobs, threatened their livelihood,” said League President Cecile Scoon.

“They suffered greatly, and many of them actually moved out of their Southern towns in Florida because they didn’t feel safe for voting. And I would say, bringing back special election police, security forces, just brings back those terrible memories and it’s very, very threatening to many communities.”

Nevertheless, the Republican-dominated committee approved the bill on a vote of 12-8.

Gibson questioned what alleged problems Hutson’s bill would correct, especially in regard to voting by mail, which was used at historic levels in 2020 at the height of the pre-vaccination stage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The problem with the vote-by-mail process is, we want to make sure that they’re actual, legal voters voting in the vote by mail process,” Hutson said.

Meanwhile, the Legislature’s overhaul of election laws last year (SB 90) is being scrutinized in federal court along the same objections raised Thursday, with voting-rights and civil-rights organizations arguing the changes were made not to improve security but to make voting more difficult in ways that will reduce minority participation.

Senate Bill 524, sponsored this session by Volusia-Seminole Republican Sen. Travis Hutson with the blessing of Gov. Ron DeSantis, creates a 15-member “Office of Election Crimes and Security” and enlists Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers to investigate allegations — even anonymous ones left on tip lines — of election irregularities.

Critics say the bill props up manufactured distrust of Florida elections, is a waste of taxpayer money, and will impose additional work and financial burdens on local elections officials without providing additional resources to help them.

In addition, Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami-Dade Democrat, reminded all that Florida’s 2020 elections were regarded as fault-free, even according to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has joined the trend of demanding greater election security as he pursues reelection this year and a possible presidential run in 2024.

Pizzo pointedly questioned why lawmakers would finance a new 15-member agency to investigate an insignificant number of elections complaints when so many other governmental operations desperately need more personnel — including investigators of sexual assault and shootings as well as the beleaguered Florida Department of Corrections, in which Pizzo, as Criminal Justice chair, has keen interest.

SB 524 also dictates how election officials should scrub their voter-registration rolls, commissions a state-level study of how to distribute and collect vote-by-mail ballots, prohibits election officials from accepting grants to help them administer elections, bans ranked-choice voting, and raises the penalty for voter-registration organization errors (charged at $250 per violation) from a cap of $1,000 to a cap of $50,000.

Scoon told senators the latter provision will intimidate third-party voter registration organizations such as the League of Women Voters by raising the financial risk they face if they make mistakes.

“They’re going to be afraid, because if someone makes an inadvertent mistake, they don’t have those resources. They think, can I handle that penalty?” Scoon said.

Maintenance of voter-registration rolls was another key topic of debate, with members of two groups attending the hearing complaining that SB 524 falls short of addressing their claims about election fraud. They alleged local election supervisors are ignoring their claims that the rolls include names of dead people and voters who have moved out of Florida.

“There’s lots of problems there, lots of problems. The lists that our local supervisor of election is sending up to the secretary of the elections office [Secretary of State Laurel Lee] up here is full of fraud, fraud,” said Michael Johnson, who identified himself as a Seminole County member of Grassroots for America. Johnson described the other group, Defend Florida, as its counterpart.

Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, representing Pinellas County, challenged whether witnesses claiming they have detected voting fraud had alerted local authorities for investigation.

Wesley Huff, with Defend Florida, said he had alerted local Republican Party officials.

“We want the local Republican parties to step up their responsibility for election oversight,” Huff said.

Sen. Gibson countered that such claims fail to recognize that some voters do in fact die between election cycles and some move away — changes that are captured in periodic clean-up of rolls by local election officials.

David Ramba, a lobbyist representing the state’s supervisors of elections, added that having a deceased person listed among registered voters is not fraud — unless someone fraudulently votes in that person’s name.

Ramba said supervisors — who, in Florida include Democrats, Republicans, and non-affiliated — already groom voter-registration rolls and do not oppose further instruction in that regard, but they want a series of “glitches” addressed in SB 524 before lending their support to it.

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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.