Florida lawmaker files bill to change state's vote-by-mail process

After Florida has received widespread praise for its handling of the 2020 election, Republicans and Democrats clashed Tuesday as a Senate committee approved a bill that would require voters to more frequently request vote-by-mail ballots.

Senate Ethics and Elections Chairman Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who is sponsoring the measure (SB 90), said it would help improve the security of the vote-by-mail process, citing concerns about issues such as people moving frequently and ballots going to their old addresses.

"This bill gives vote-by-mail security and choice," Baxley said before his committee voted 5-4 to approve the measure. "This is a good bill. … I feel sure that you’ll be pleased in the long run, despite your fears and concerns. It’ll work better." 

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But Democrats said the bill would hurt voting by mail, with Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, pointing to a history of voter suppression in Florida and the upcoming 2022 gubernatorial election, when Republican governor Ron DeSantis will be on the ballot.

"This is clearly going to reduce vote-by-mail in Democratic counties. … And so, I can’t support this. I’m sorry that I even have to take it there, but it’s disheartening to look at this for what I see it is," Bracy said.

With the COVID-19 pandemic causing many people to be reluctant to go to the polls, more than 4.85 million Floridians cast votes by mail in the November election. That included about 2.19 million registered Democrats and 1.5 million registered Republicans, with the rest of the ballots cast by unaffiliated or third-party voters.

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Voting by mail caused massive political and legal fights in other states, particularly as former President Donald Trump disputed his election loss to President Joe Biden. But the vote-by-mail process went smoothly in Florida, with election results available quickly.

Under current law, Floridians’ vote-by-mail ballot requests are good for the years including the next two general elections. For example, if a person requests a vote-by-mail ballot this year, the request would be good for all elections through 2024 --- as general elections will be held in 2022 and 2024, according to a Senate staff analysis.

But Baxley’s bill would scale that back so the request would be good only for the year containing the next general election. For instance, if a person requests a vote-by-mail ballot this year, the request would be good for all elections through 2022.

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The effect would be that people would have to request vote-by-mail ballots more often.

Tuesday’s vote was along party lines, with Republicans supporting the measure and Democrats opposing it.

Sen. Ileana Garcia, R-Miami, praised the measure, calling it a "wonderful opportunity to reset, to once again engage voter confidence. And all of this in the name of transparency. If it’s working well, well, maybe it’ll work a little better."

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But Democrats said the change isn’t needed.

"We will not get the same numbers of vote-by-mail, and, unfortunately, I guess that’s the intent here," Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said.