TALLAHASSEE - One of the 2021 legislative session’s most-controversial issues --- a sweeping elections package that would make it harder for Floridians to vote by mail --- is headed to the Senate floor for a vote, after a Republican-dominated committee signed off on the proposal Tuesday.
The Senate Rules Committee devoted hours last week to the issue, hearing impassioned speeches from voting- and civil-rights organizations and Democratic lawmakers who asserted that the proposed changes target Black, Hispanic and older voters. The committee ran out of time before voting on the measure, but Chairwoman Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, put it at the top of the panel’s Tuesday agenda.
The committee spent less than 30 minutes Tuesday considering the package, which addresses elections supervisors’ use of ballot drop boxes; signature matching on mail-in ballots; and a host of other administrative issues related to voting by mail and election administration.
The proposal, which is similar to voting-related legislation being passed or considered by Republican-led state houses throughout the nation, comes after Florida Democrats for the first time outnumbered Republicans in voting by mail in the November election.
"So that has led many to ask us, you know, why are we doing this? Why, after such an effective election cycle with great enfranchisement of so many people in a methodology that proved to be so desirable to so many voters?" Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, said before the committee voted 10-7 to approve the bill (SB 90).
Critics of the measure repeatedly have pointed to comments made by Gov. Ron DeSantis and other GOP leaders, who boasted that Florida’s handling of the presidential election should be used as a model for other states.
"We believe this bill does go too far and will result in potential disenfranchisement," Farmer added. "Provisions of this bill are going to be problematic for Florida voters."
Sen. Jeff Brandes was the lone Republican to join Democrats in opposing the bill.
Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, noted that "not one Republican supervisor of elections" --- including Lake County Supervisor of Elections Alan Hays, a former state senator whom Brandes called a "staunch conservative" --- supports the elections revamp.
"I want to make sure that Floridians understand that the Republicans that have run for office to represent a fair election process in the state of Florida, not one Republican supervisor has stood up and said they support this piece of legislation," Brandes said.
But bill sponsor Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said he modified the bill in part to assuage concerns that the vote-by-mail changes were too harsh.
"I understand that elections are controversial, and I also understand there’s a fear we’re trying to take away the right of people to vote. I also want you to know that is not the motivation of this bill. That is not the intention of the sponsor," Baxley, who chairs the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, said. "The purpose, at least for me, has always been to clarify our intent for secure, fair and even-handed elections."
One of the most contentious issues in the bill addresses drop boxes, which became a flashpoint last year after local elections supervisors wrangled with DeSantis’ administration over the boxes’ locations and whether they were required to be staffed in person.
More than 1.1 million Floridians submitted their mail-in ballots at drop boxes amid the coronavirus pandemic in November.
An original version of the Senate bill would have done away with drop boxes altogether. But an amendment proposed by Baxley and adopted by the committee last week would allow supervisors to use drop boxes during early voting hours, so long as the boxes are manned by elections office employees.
A House version of the bill (HB 7041), also ready for a floor vote, would make it more difficult to drop off mail-in ballots, requiring people to show identification when they submit ballots at drop boxes or provide a written "attestation" that they have permission to submit other voters’ ballots.
Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley said the drop-box identification and attestation provisions "are unworkable." People don’t have to show identification when they return ballots using the U.S. Postal Service.
"That is a hurdle that has no use but will have big logistical impacts on how we can manage our drop boxes and our early voting sites," because they are at the same locations, Earley said. "You jam one up, you’re jamming up both processes.
Another contentious issue deals with voter signature verification. Under the latest version of the bill, voters’ signatures could only be verified against signatures within the preceding four years. If a "wet" signature --- a hard copy on paper with a pen or other writing utensil --- is not available within the past four years, verifiers could use the most recent "wet" signature on record.
Voting-rights advocates said that requirement could wipe off the voting rolls hundreds of thousands of voters whose only signatures on file are electronic signatures made on pads or tablets when they signed up to vote at Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles driver’s license bureaus.
The House proposal would allow elections supervisors and county canvassing boards to use eight years’ worth of signatures on file with their offices to verify mail-in ballot certificates. An earlier version of the measure would have restricted the signature matches to four years.
Some of the provisions in both chambers’ bills "will make it more difficult" for voters to submit their vote-by-mail ballots and make it harder for supervisors to validate ballots, said Earley, who is vice president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections association.
"We are suggesting changes to the language and still working with the leadership in the House and Senate to address our concerns," Earley told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday. "Having stated that, I think frankly all of us don’t think that either SB 90 or HB 7041 are really needed."