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Lawmakers refuel fight over elections laws

By Jim Saunders

News Service of Florida

April 19, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — In the latest round in a years-long fight about Florida elections laws, the House on Wednesday moved forward with a proposal that would make wide-ranging changes such as placing additional restrictions on voter-registration groups.

Republican supporters said the bill, in part, would help ensure that voter-registration groups properly turn in registration forms and protect personal information of people signing up to vote.

“This is a fantastic piece of legislation that will keep Florida the gold standard in elections administration,” Secretary of State Cord Byrd said before the House State Affairs Committee approved the bill.

But opponents said “third party” voter-registration groups play an important role in registering people such as Black voters, immigrants and felons who have completed their sentences. They said the bill would curb registration efforts.

“If you love America and love democracy, this ain’t the bill for you,” Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby, D-St. Petersburg, said.

The House bill (PCB SAC 23-01) is similar to a Senate version (SB 7050) that will be heard Thursday in the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee.

Florida ran relatively smooth elections in 2020 and 2022, but Gov. Ron DeSantis and other GOP leaders have repeatedly pushed for elections-law changes that they say are needed to prevent potential fraud and other irregularities.

The changes have sparked political and legal battles, with Democrats arguing that the GOP has tried to make it harder for groups such as Black voters — a key part of the Democratic base — to cast ballots.

The 108-page bill approved Wednesday by the House State Affairs Committee would make myriad changes. Some of the highest-profile proposals include:

— Preventing people who are not U.S. citizens from collecting or handling voter-registration applications for the third-party registration groups. Also barred would be people who have been convicted of certain felonies, such as violations of the state elections code.

— Shortening a time frame from 14 days to 10 days for voter-registration groups to deliver registration applications to supervisors of elections. Also, the bill would increase fines for missing the deadline or not turning in applications.

— Requiring that voter-registration groups provide receipts when they collect applications from people.

— Requiring voter-registration groups to re-register with the state after every general election.

— Easing campaign-finance reporting requirements for candidates and political committees. Under current law, candidates and committees have to file monthly reports during off-election years and until shortly after the campaign-qualifying period in election years. They have to file more-frequent reports closer to elections. Under the bill, they would be able to file reports quarterly until qualifying time. At that point, they would resume the current reporting schedule.

Much of the debate during Wednesday’s meeting focused on the proposed changes affecting voter-registration groups. Opponents said the bill would lead to confusion and have a chilling effect on the groups because of the additional requirements and potential fines.

“I think the goal of this bill is to really mute or stop third-party voter registration organizations,” Rep. Robin Bartleman, D-Weston, said. “These are the very groups that register our most marginalized groups of people.”

But State Affairs Chairman Lawrence McClure, a Dover Republican who is sponsoring the bill, said proposed changes would help increase transparency.

As an example, McClure said requiring the groups to provide receipts would give people a record of information they submitted when applying to vote. Also, he said it would provide a record if groups don’t properly submit applications to elections supervisors.

“They have a record of that moment when they provided their personal information,” McClure said.

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