Florida Election Officials Revolt Against GOP Bill Targeting Mail-In Voting

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March 12, 2021 11:44 a.m.

Florida’s Republican leaders have changed their tune on the state’s elections system. 

In the months before and immediately after the 2020 election, they bragged about the state’s mastery of mail-in voting and lauded November’s election for, as Gov. Ron DeSantis’ put it, showing the country how “elections should be run.”

But now, with DeSantis’ encouragement, the legislature is moving forward with a bill that makes drastic changes to Florida’s mail voting procedures, prompting aggressive pushback from the local bureaucrats who are in charge of implementing elections.

“I’m literally befuddled as to why we would tweak a system that performed exceedingly well,” Brian Corley, a Republican who is the elections supervisor in Pasco County, said in a statement.

“All of these people are just abundant in their congratulations and appreciation for a wonderful election,” Alan Hays, the supervisor for elections in Lake County, Florida, told TPM. “Well then, why don’t you end the conversation there, instead of trying to go in here and wreck a very well functioning [system]?”

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Hays, a Republican who previously served in Florida’s Senate and House, testified at a committee hearing on the bill Wednesday, where he called the legislation a “travesty.” He was joined by Leon County supervisor Mark Earley, a Democrat who is the vice president of the supervisors’ state association. Earley said that the organization opposed the bill “vehemently,” and that it would bring confusion and long lines to Florida’s elections.

Yet, despite that unsparing message, the legislation — known as SB90 — advanced out of one committee Wednesday, and has one panel more to clear before heading to the Senate floor. The bill would end the use of ballot drop boxes and make other aspects of Florida’s mail ballot system more cumbersome. 

The push to pass new restrictions is part of a nationwide wave of measures that would make voting harder, fueled by the lies President Trump amplified about the election in his effort to overturn his defeat. This particular bill has touched a nerve in Florida, however, given how Democrats and Republicans alike have held Florida up as a model for its mail-in voting procedures — with Trump himself repeatedly praising Florida’s system, which he also has used to cast his own ballot.

Hays told TPM that the supervisors plan to offer more recommendations for adjusting the bill, and if it’s not changed, that he’s hopeful that DeSantis would veto the current version, given the supervisors’ concerns. DeSantis’ office did not respond to TPM’s inquiry.

In an interview with TPM, its sponsor, Sen. Dennis Baxley (R), said that changes to the bill are still being considered, but he was nonetheless surprised by the backlash from the local election officials.

“I’ve always tried to be very responsive to the supervisors, because they do a great job, and they are usually a little more careful about how they interact,” Baxley said. “A couple of them have been pretty brutal on me and I’m not sure that you’ve accomplished a lot by doing that with policymakers.”

He said lawmakers shouldn’t have to wait until a problem arises in Florida’s election process to look into tightening up the procedures. He dismissed the concerns about his bill’s elimination of drop boxes — which were used by 1.5 million voters in November — by arguing the proponents of mail voting should be willing to trust the mail.

“It’s very funny to me that we’re talking about vote-by-mail, but nobody wants to vote by mail. They want to go put it in a drop box somewhere,” he told TPM. “That doesn’t strike me nearly as secure.”

While some non-election materials made it into ballot drop boxes, supervisors have acknowledged, there haven’t been any credible allegations of fraud in drop box use, they’ve said.

Local election officials are also anxious about how the bill would drastically scale back the option Florida voters have to sign up to automatically receive mail ballots for multiple elections in a row. Currently, voters can opt in to receiving mail ballots for every election in a four-year period before having to renew their place on the mail ballot list again. Under SB90, they’d have to re-up their applications every other year. 

Even more concerning to voter advocates is that, if passed, the legislation would reset the current list, requiring every voter — including those recently signed up for the four years’ worth of mail ballots — to apply to be put on the absentee list again.

“You’re going to catch a lot of Floridians unaware, who checked the box thinking ‘I’ve already signed up for my ballot,’ and then they’re never going to get it,” said Patricia Brigham, the president of Florida’s League of Women Voters.

Republicans have long championed the practice of letting mail voters sign up to receive ballots for multiple elections in a row; it was GOP lawmakers who last expanded the length of time each request could last. But the 2020 election brought a record number of Democratic voters using vote-by-mail in the state, and presumably many of them also opted in to be on the semi-permanent list.

Asked by TPM about why he wanted the list reset, Baxley argued that a lot of people signed up for mail ballots specifically because of the pandemic, as they were being cautioned against in-person gatherings. 

“When we restart, we should all start at the same starting line,” he said.

Additionally, the bill requires voters to submit much more detailed personal information — including either their driver’s license ID or the last four digits of their social security number — when they apply for a mail ballot. Election officials say that, because of that mandate, voters will no longer be able to apply for a mail ballot via a postcard, which would leave sensitive information exposed. Switching to a letter-and-envelope application — when coupled with the manpower that inputting the new information will require — will cost officials an additional $14-16 million, they said.

“The provision that voids all vote-by-mail requests will not only impact millions of Florida voters but will cause an unfunded mandate of millions of dollars to the taxpayers of our great state,” Corley said.

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