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Florida election experts decry new voting bill likely to suppress minority voting

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Dibya Sarkar

Managing Editor

Tuesday, February 15, 2022


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Florida voting experts say a recently proposed state bill that would put more restrictions on mail-in ballots, ban ranked-choice voting and create a dedicated “election police” to investigate potential voting crimes is so onerous it will disproportionately deter minorities from registering and voting. And, they contend, that’s exactly what the legislation is designed to do.

“What they’re trying to do is plain as day: they’re trying to restrict voting,” said Frederick Velez III, the national civic engagement director for the advocacy group Hispanic Federation, during a virtual press briefing Monday.

Sponsored by Republican state Sen. Travis Hutson, SB 524 (HB 7061 in the House) has already passed the Senate Ethics and Elections committee 5-3 along party lines. Next, the bill will be considered in the Senate Community Affairs committee. Two weeks ago, Hutson said the bill aims to safeguard elections. "What’s wrong with being the most secure elections in the entire nation. I mean, who’s afraid of being too secure," Hutson was quoted by Fox 13 news.

But voting experts said SB 524 imposes confusing, unnecessary and expensive measures (read the Senate bill analysis and fiscal impact statement) even as Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republican leaders touted the 2020 election as a “model” or “gold standard” in how elections should be conducted nationally.

Brad Ashwell, Florida state director for All Voting is Local, said the proposed vote-by-mail restrictions in the bill would create a “minefield of problems” for voters.

With the current process, citizens voting by mail must include their ballots in a secrecy envelope, which is then enclosed in a mailing envelope. The voter must sign the back of the mailing envelope to affirm they are qualified and registered to vote. If a signature isn’t included on the absentee ballot or doesn’t match what the county has on file, then a canvassing board or county supervisor of elections tries to “cure” them, meaning they will allow voters a chance to fix their ballot so it can be county and not thrown away.

But, if SB 524 is enacted as is, beginning Jan. 1, 2024, voters would be required to submit their ballots using three envelopes: a ballot placed in a secrecy envelope, which goes into a certificate envelope where voters must write down the last four digits of their driver’s license, state ID card or Social Security number. Those two envelopes then go into a mailing envelope.

These requirements would raise the likelihood of mail ballots being rejected, said Ashwell. “This is especially the case for seniors, voters with disabilities, first-time users of mail ballots [and for] … voters, which English is not their primary language.”

A similar law in Texas is currently fueling confusion among residents there voting in a March 1 primary. Velez said 40 percent of mail-in ballots in Harris County have been rejected due to a lack of a required identification number. Even if the rejection rate is half that in Florida, Velez said that means at least tens of thousands of mail-in ballots could be thrown out.

Another problem with the mail-in ballot provisions, said Ashwell, is that supervisors of elections may not have the pertinent identifying data — driver’s license, state ID and Social Security numbers — for all voters, meaning it will be more difficult for elections officials to check the validity of absentee ballots. He cited recent testimony from Maria Matthews, director of the Division of Elections within the Florida Department of State — at a trial on the validity of legislation (SB 90) enacted last year to presumably boost election integrity — who said, currently, 400,000 voters don’t have any such ID number on file, while 1.5 million voters have only a Social Security number on file and 1.3 million only have a driver’s license or state ID number on file.

“It’s easy to imagine where a voter might fill out their driver’s license when submitting their request but when filling out their actual ballot maybe they’ll put their last four of their Social and then that ballot would likely be rejected,” Ashwell said.

The cost that this bill could impose on county elections departments is “cryptic or vague” at this time, he added. Experts said there’s no funding provision for materials like envelopes, postage and new training.

Another bill provision would create the Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Department of State, an initiative proposed by DeSantis in November. Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters in Florida, said such a unit would look for problems and take complaints that won’t have to be justified. Experts said there have only been a handful of violations that were caught by officials, showing that the current system works.

Abdelilah Skhir, election policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the bill has language that doesn’t really say what kind of violations or “election irregularities” the new unit would be allowed to investigate. For instance, he said the bill’s sponsor, Hutson, indicated that the election police unit wouldn’t be able to investigate ghost candidates. However, Senate President Wilton Simpson, also a Republican, later said the bill wouldn’t bar the unit from investigating ghost candidates.

“So it’s clear the plane is being built while it’s in the air,” said Skhir.

Scoon said an election police unit is “draconian” and would have a “terrible impact” on especially Black and Brown communities. She said it hearkens back to an age when law enforcement threatened and scared African-Americans from voting. “It seems to be intentional,” she said of SB 524. “It seems to be wanting to threaten and scare people from their foundational and fundamental rights to be involved with voting.”

Current law prohibits law enforcement from entering polling stations. Ashwell said that provision remains in force in the current bill but experts are watching it closely to ensure it stays there.

Another provision would increase fines against third-party voter registration organizations, which improperly return potential voters’ registration applications, to $50,000, up from the current $1,000. Scoon said this would “literally freeze people out” including smaller organizations and churches. She said the LWV is also concerned for itself.

Still another provision would ban ranked-choice voting in Florida and preempt counties and cities that enact such voting processes. Velez said ranked-choice voting was successfully used in New York City last year, resulting in the most diverse city council ever and increased Black and Brown participation on the council.

“So why in a state where we tout home rule so much are we limiting those things?” he added.

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