Dear voters: You won’t have to use four envelopes to vote by mail this fall

But some restrictions will still curdle the blood of voting-rights activists

By: - February 28, 2022 5:03 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

No, you won’t have to use four envelopes to vote by mail this fall — an amendment approved by a committee in the Florida House on Monday stripped that requirement from elections regulation legislation being pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in this election year.

Instead — and bringing HB 7061 in line with a version moving through the Senate — the Appropriations Committee accepted an amendment that would require the Florida Department of State, which oversees elections, to study how to use various forms of identification to make balloting more secure and report back on Jan. 1.

The measure retains plenty to curdle the blood of voting-rights activists, including felony penalties for “ballot harvesting” — meaning delivering mail-in ballots belonging to anyone except the single voter — long employed by get-out-the-vote efforts but demonized by DeSantis.

The maximum penalty for voter-registration organizations for filing registration forms late would rise from the maximum $1,000 under existing law to $50,000.

Additionally, the bill would create an Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Department of State and designate special agents to investigate elections fraud within each of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s seven regional offices.

Democrat Joe Geller quizzes Republican Daniel Perez on his voting bill on Feb. 28, 2022. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

Bill sponsor Daniel Perez, a Republican from Miami-Dade County, insisted he doesn’t want to impede voting — merely to provide money and people to investigate voter fraud.

“If that is something that we cannot agree on in this committee, then that is quite disheartening. It is disheartening. I would hope that, with all the differences that may take place in this process, that is one thing that I would hope we could all agree on,” Perez said.

Democrat Ben Diamond of Pinellas County argued the legislation is part of a pattern by Republicans of inflating bogus accusations of widespread election fraud. “We’re making this change not based on data, not based on information, but based on politics and to fuel a political point. This is not a good place to be as a legislature,” he said.

Rep. Ben Diamond Credit: Danielle J. Brown

“We saw what happened in Washington, D.C., when there were false claims being thrown about with regards to this last election and we saw what happened on Jan. 6. We have to be very, very careful that, when we’re creating new criminal justice enforcement activities that we’re spending money based on justifiable data,” Diamond said.

“Bills like this are continuing to undermine the public trust in our election system, and my concern is that creating an office of elections crime in Tallahassee is only going to make this problem worse.”

In the end, the committee OK’d the measure along party lines.

“The whole point of the bill is to just make sure that our election system is as fair, as concise, and accurate as it can be. What those options are, we will leave it to the Department of State when they do their research between now and Jan. 1, 2023,” Perez told reporters following the vote.

The hearing came as parties to a federal lawsuit against SB 90, last year’s legislative restrictions on election access, await a ruling in a federal challenge filed by an array of voting- and civil-rights organizations including the League of Women Voters of Florida.

Meanwhile, voters in Texas are struggling with new restrictions imposed by that state’s GOP-dominated Legislature, including a confusing photo-ID requirement and allowance for canvassing monitoring by partisan poll watchers.

Members of an organization called Defending Florida, which alleges widespread voting fraud in Florida, lamented that the bill being debated Monday lacked that latter provision.

The Office of Election Crimes would be staffed by civilian employees who would investigate allegations of voting fraud and monitor the state’s vote-fraud hot line.

“This section does not limit the jurisdiction of any other office or agency of the state empowered by law to investigate, act upon, or dispose of alleged election law violations,” the text reads.

The office would issue an annual report detailing its investigations and their findings.

Additionally, governors could appoint special FDLE officers dedicated to investigating election irregularities, although they also could work on non-election cases. As for other police officers, they wouldn’t be allowed to enter polling places while voting is underway.

The bill forbids use of ranked-choice voting within the state, meaning ballots on which voters mark candidates in order of preference with multiple rounds of tabulation. Because the method encourages candidates to appeal to the broadest possible electorate, it tends and favor moderate vote seekers.

The measure would bar elections administrators from accepting outside contributions in support of voting, including for voter education, outreach, or registration programs, “or the cost of any litigation related to election administration.”

Republicans including DeSantis have expressed outrage at reports that Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg had contributed more than $400 million through foundations to support election administration, alleging the effort benefited Democrats; see this report in The Federalist. DeSantis calls the money “Zuckerbucks.”

Anyone involved with tallying votes who releases information about results before voting concludes would face felony penalties.

In a nod to recent reports out of Miami-Dade County, the bill provides that any voter registration gatherer who changes a voter’s party affiliation without permission would be subject to a $1,000 fine.

The bill would tighten procedures elections supervisors use to identify registered voters who have moved away or died. Additionally, court clerks would have to send the Division of Elections information on felony convictions along with information about legal financial obligations imposed against the convicted.

The committee heard complaints by organizations including the League and the ACLU of Florida that voter fraud is rare and that existing laws are sufficient to uncover and prosecute it.

Perez pointed to a Heritage Foundation study purporting to document widespread fraud in states including Florida.

A counter-analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice concluded the Heritage report exaggerates the problem, identifying only 749 cases out of more than 3 billion votes cast since 1949.

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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.