South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)

Changes to election laws create divide

Critics say Gov. DeSantis is making ‘deceitful claims’ to justify proposed legislatio­n

- By Anthony Man

Florida’s top Republican­s and Democrats are completely in agreement — a remarkably rare occurrence — about a controvers­ial subject: the 2020 election.

Voting in Florida went off virtually flawlessly, both sides agree, with results tallied accurately and reported quickly. Even so, Florida is preparing to change its election laws.

The moves are being pushed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican­s who control the state Legislatur­e. They have the votes to make whatever changes they want in the state election code during the annual legislativ­e session, which starts Tuesday.

The cumulative effect of the proposals would be to make it more difficult for Democrats to win elections in 2022 — when the Republican governor will be seeking re-election.

Democrats are crying foul, but they’re powerless to stop the changes. They’ve been complainin­g, and did so again Friday.

“These election bills and proposals are not solutions. They are problems in and of themselves. And they equate to nothing short of a massive voter suppressio­n campaign, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Jim Crow days,” said state Sen. Gary Farmer, a Broward Democrat who is his party’s leader in the Florida Senate.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, said it’s part of a nationwide effort by Republican­s who are making “deceitful claims” about elections and using “manufactur­ed fears of fraud.”

Republican­s are building on the narrative that President Donald Trump, Republican elected officials and conservati­ve media outlets pushed after the 2020 presidenti­al election — what Wasserman Schultz called “The big lie that the 2020 election was stolen. It’s a destructiv­e and dangerous lie.”

Mail ballots

Mail ballots are the central flashpoint. Republican­s have proposed various changes in the rules for requesting and returning mail ballots — including cancelling all previous requests.

Under current law, if someone requests a mail ballot, the request lasts for two general

elections. So someone who asked for a ballot for the presidenti­al election last year would automatica­lly get one for the 2022 gubernator­ial election.

DeSantis and state Sen. Dennis Baxley, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, wants to cancel those mail ballot requests. Legislatio­n sponsored by the Ocala Republican would make mail ballot requests good for one calendar year only.

Farmer and other Democrats said there’s one clear reason for that proposed change: Democrats now have

800,000-plus advantage over Republican­s in mail-ballot requests the year before the gubernator­ial election.

For almost two decades, Florida has allowed people to request mail ballots for any reason, and Republican­s used it more — until 2020, when Democrats, concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic, used mail balloting more than Republican­s. Because the requests last for two years, Democrats have an advantage.

Republican­s also want to impose other limitation­s on mail balloting: prohibitin­g people from collecting mail ballots from voters and returning them to elections offices, and restrictin­g the availabili­ty of drop boxes for people who want to use a mail ballot but don’t want to rely on the Postal Service to return it.

The motivation, Democrats said, is to disenfranc­hise voters.

“Governor DeSantis and my Republican colleagues desire to take us back to the

1960s,” said state Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Broward Democrat. “They’re trying to silence the voices of people who look like me.” Jones is Black.

State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia of Spring Hill, a member of the House Public Integrity & Elections Committee, who appeared with DeSantis in West Palm Beach on Feb. 19 to unveil the Republican efforts, said the criticisms are shallow and predictabl­e.

He said Democrats routinely criticize proposed election law changes — even the laws under which the 2020 election was successful­ly run, as “voter suppressio­n.”

“When Democrats scream ‘voter suppressio­n,’ it is mostly an intellectu­ally dishonest argument,” he said. “The other thing is that if they’re claiming that we had no issues in the last election, they clearly weren’t paying attention. Because there were issues, specifical­ly with the drop boxes.”

Ingoglia, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, said he authored the part of the law that allowed the use of drop boxes for people to return their mail ballots if they didn’t want to use the Postal Service. But he said they became too much of a security risk when some county elections officials didn’t ensure they were always watched by a person, instead of relying on a video camera.

Democrats said the drop boxes proved popular with voters and there weren’t security breaches.

Baxley rejected the Democrats’ assessment of what the Republican­s are doing. “They’re notorious for projecting motives onto other people. That’s not the path of my thinking. I’m all about security.”

Nationwide effort

The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University law school said Florida is among 33 states where lawmakers are pursuing legislatio­n to restrict voting. The Brennan Center reports 165 such bills have been filed this year, compared to 35 in February 2020.

Ever since the election, Trump and his supporters have pushed the idea that there was something wrong with the election, and that President Joe Biden didn’t win.

There is no evidence the election was stolen. Republican elections officials, and Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr, have said there was no widespread fraud. Federal judges appointed by Trump issued multiple opinions finding there was no basis to the claims of irregulari­ties. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who championed everything Trump wanted in the last four years, said Biden was the clear, legitimate winner.

But claims of election issues have become a major way for Republican politician­s to appeal to their party’s voters. Republican­s have sent out fundraisin­g pitches claiming election fraud. It was a centerpiec­e of sessions Friday in Orlando on the first day of the national Conservati­ve Political Action Conference, known as CPAC.

Florida Republican­s have been walking a fine line. They don’t want to disrupt the narrative of Trump supporters, but they don’t try to argue that there were problems with the 2020 election in Florida.

DeSantis, who is seen as a likely 2024 presidenti­al candidate if he wins re-election next year, played a part. During his remarks Friday at CPAC, DeSantis bragged about how well Florida ran its voting last year — and pledged to tighten laws.

Wasserman Schultz, who said she can translate “DeSantis-ese,” said the governor is “talking out of both sides of his mouth.”

Farmer said the Florida Republican­s proposals are “solutions in search of an imaginary problems.”

One DeSantis proposal would ban mailing unsolicite­d mail ballots. Florida doesn’t send unrequeste­d ballots, and an analysis last year by the Broward County Attorney’s Office addressed that exact question — and stated flatly that it is not allowed under Florida law. Ballots can go only to people who request them.

A DeSantis spokeswoma­n, in response to the Democrats’ criticisms, pointed to what the governor said when he announced the election proposals. DeSantis’ statement touted the state’s 2020 performanc­e — but argued there’s always room for improvemen­t.

“Last November, Florida held the smoothest, most successful election of any state in the country. While we should celebrate this feat, we should not rest on our laurels,” DeSantis said. “We are taking action to ensure that Florida remains a leader on key issues regarding our electoral process, such as ballot integrity, public access to election informatio­n, transparen­cy of election reporting and more. By strengthen­ing these election integrity protection­s, we will ensure that our elections remain secure and transparen­t, and that Florida’s electoral process remains a blueprint for other states to follow.”

Baxley made a similar argument.

“We had an incredibly successful election, and it’s imperative that we look forward. We don’t need to wait for a problem to develop. I think there’s some improvemen­ts that we can make,” Baxley said. “I want it easy to vote and hard to cheat.”

During a video news conference on Friday, state Rep. Michael Gottlieb, a Broward Democrat, used DeSantis’ words about how well the 2020 election went in Florida to show changes weren’t needed.

“If it’s not broken what are we fixing? If the system has worked what are we doing?” he said. “It’s like trying to put lipstick on the Mona Lisa. Leave it alone.”

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