Legislation targeting mail ballots advances in Florida House with GOP support

By John Kennedy, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, March 23, 2021

TALLAHASSEE – Florida Republican lawmakers continued to push changes making it harder to vote by mail while limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, despite opposition Monday from elections supervisors and voting rights advocates who warn it will reduce turnout in Florida.

A GOP-dominated House committee rolled out its overhaul package – a slightly softer approach than a tough-edged measure advancing in the Senate.

Gov. Ron DeSantis also has called for a rewrite of state elections law only months after praising the state’s performance during last fall’s presidential contest. Republican lawmakers nationwide have introduced hundreds of bills that critics say could restrict voter access in future elections, legislation that many say stems from former President Donald Trump’s defeat last November.

While the Florida Senate bill would ban ballot drop boxes and eliminate vote-by-mail requests on file from millions of voters who cast ballots last fall, the House is offering some concessions.

The measure sponsored by Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a Spring Hill Republican and former state GOP chair, allows any vote-by-mail requests made last year to remain valid for next year’s contests, including DeSantis’ expected reelection bid.

Drop boxes also would remain – although they would have to be staffed by elections officials, and the hours and locations for these boxes would be limited under the bill. Ingoglia also said he is willing to consider making changes in the measure as it moves forward in committees.

“The things in this bill are meant to increase election security, without suppressing anyone’s vote,” Ingoglia said. “The bill does that now. But I think … we will make a good bill better.”

The legislation cleared the House Public Integrity & Elections Committee in a party-line, 11-6 vote, with Democrats opposed.

Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, called the bill unnecessary. She said it also comes after lawmakers from both parties described 2020 as “the smoothest election we’ve had in Florida.”

“It’s unnecessary, cumbersome and at this stage it will deny people a chance to vote with an overreach of security measures,” Davis said.

Requests for mail ballots were heavily tilted toward registered Democrats last year.

About 45% of Democrats voted by mail in November, compared with 31% of Republicans in Florida. The imbalance was fueled in part by Trump discouraging voting-by-mail, insisting without evidence that the practice was rife with fraud.

Registered Democrats currently hold a stunning 812,474 voter lead over Republicans in mail ballot requests from 2020, according to the Florida Division of Elections. That advantage would disappear under the Senate bill – but these requests would remain valid for next year under the House legislation Ingoglia is proposing.

A record 11.1 million voters cast ballots in Florida last November – with 43%, or 4.8 million Floridians voting by mail. Of those, about 1.5 million used drop boxes, officials have said.

While the House measure does not go as far as the Senate, it does target many of the same elections areas, including adding a controversial new signature match requirement and a prohibition on counties receiving funding from private organizations to improve elections services.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg provided $350 million nationwide last fall to help elections offices when the federal government did not offer help with heightened demands caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Florida counties received millions of dollars in support – but Republicans decry the aid as a potential interference. Ingoglia said it is government’s role to run elections.

Like the Senate, the House would limit vote-by-mail requests to one general election – from the current two general election span. But it allows the millions of requests made last year to continue through 2022, before the new standard is applied.

Drop boxes wouldn’t be banned under the House bill. But new hurdles added include a requirement that anyone dropping off a ballot produce a driver’s license or voter identification card, which supervisors say will slow the process and lead to lines at early voting sites where the bill requires most boxes to be placed in a county.

Ballots also could be dropped off for someone else only by someone who legally shares the same address, or by a family member – who would have to sign a statement if they did not share the same address.

Mark Earley, Leon County’s elections supervisor, said the drop box changes are “going to guarantee tie up the process.”

John Kennedy is a reporter in the Capital Bureau, USA Today Network-Florida. He can be reached at jkennedy2@gannett.com., or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport.


 Image Credits: Eva Marie Uzcatequi/Bloomberg