Following in the footsteps of neighboring Georgia, Florida has become the second battleground state to pass an election overhaul bill designed to roll back access to absentee voting.
GOP lawmakers in Tallahassee pushed the legislation through both chambers Thursday, largely along party lines, with only one Republican senator voting against it. The bill now heads to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has touted Florida's current election system as "the gold standard." He is likely to sign the bill.
Despite finding no evidence of widespread voter fraud, Republicans maintained this legislation would make Florida's elections more secure. Former President Donald Trump won Florida by 3.3 percentage points in the 2020 election.
Once approved by the governor, this bill will enact a long list of election changes, mostly aimed at restricting voting by mail.
Floridians who wish to vote by mail or make changes to their voter registration will be required to provide their driver's license number, state-issued ID number or last four digits of their Social Security number. They will also need to request an absentee ballot for each election, with the bill prohibiting permanent vote-by-mail lists.
The use of drop boxes for absentee ballots will be limited, but not completely banned, as was originally proposed by GOP lawmakers. Drop boxes will be available only during early voting hours, when they will be monitored. The location of a drop box cannot be changed within 30 days of an election.
Electioneering activity will be prohibited within 150 feet of a drop box, like it is for polling locations. The legislation prevents people from "engaging in any activity with the intent to influence or the effect of influencing a voter," but allows election workers or volunteers to hand out food or water to voters in line in a nonpartisan way.
This legislation also targets so-called "ballot harvesting" by prohibiting the possession of two or more absentee ballots. Additionally, it allows partisan poll watchers to closely observe the ballot counting process and more easily dispute ballots that are wet, wrinkled or otherwise too damaged to run through voting machines.
Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, lambasted the Florida Legislature for approving the changes, saying it will only make it harder for people to have their voices heard and ballots counted.
"Florida's Republican legislative leaders seem determined to weaken the system that voters have relied on, without significant problems, for the better part of a generation — a system that was originally created by Republicans," she said in a statement.
Many of these provisions match elements of the Georgia law enacted in March. Other GOP-led states, like Texas and Arizona, are advancing similar legislation.
Meanwhile Democrats are advocating for more expansive measures, such as restoring voting rights for felons, adopting same-day or automatic voter registration, and implementing no-excuse absentee voting.
Democrats and voting rights advocacy groups also argue restricting access to the ballot box disproportionately affects voters who are nonwhite, disabled and elderly.
"Senate Bill 90 is one part of a multi-pronged strategy to shift power away from Florida communities toward legislative bodies that are reliably anti-voter," said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project. "We must see this legislation for what it is: an effort to block the rising political power of Floridians of color as the state demographics increasingly 'browns.'"
Good-government groups are keeping the pressure on Congress to pass the For the People Act, a sweeping democracy reform bill that includes protections against provisions include in the Florida and Georgia bills. House Democrats passed HR 1 in March, but the bill faces a much steeper challenge in the 50-50 Senate with the filibuster still intact.
"Florida is following Georgia in a race to the bottom by erecting barriers to voting that are politically motivated," said Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United and Let America Vote. "It's imperative that the Senate pass the For the People Act to fight back against this anti-democratic attack on the right to vote."
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This is the 11th installment of an ongoing Q&A series.
As Democrats take power in Washington, if only tenuously, many democracy reform groups see a potential path toward making the American political system work better. In this installment, Bob LaRocca, executive director of the Voter Protection Corps, answers our questions about 2020 accomplishments and plans for the year ahead. His organization uses data-driven solutions to battle voter suppression and disenfranchisement. LaRocca's responses have been edited for clarity and length.
First, let's briefly recap 2020. What was your biggest triumph last year?
American voters, election officials and election workers achieved a remarkable feat in 2020: holding a presidential election during a once-in-a-century pandemic and still achieving the highest turnout in history. Some states, like New Hampshire and South Carolina, adopted significant voting expansions on a temporary basis to address the challenges Covid-19 presented. Others like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia implemented major permanent advances in voting rights for the first time. The Voter Protection Corps was proud to work with city, state and local officials to help ensure that every legitimate voter was able to register, vote and have their vote counted. The Voter Protection Corps released a national action plan to protect in-person voting, recruited poll workers across the county, and ensured students in New Hampshire had the resources they needed to vote. We also partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to create a data tool to identify counties at risk for voting challenges and the possibility of voter disenfranchisement due to vast poll worker recruitment shortfalls.
And your biggest setback?
Even though we made progress in 2020, we faced constant threats to safely casting a ballot, a commander-in-chief who spread disinformation and encouraged voter suppression at every turn, and an attack on our Capitol by white supremacists trying to overturn the election. And while we did everything in our power to ensure every legitimate voter was able to register, vote and have their vote counted, there is no doubt that these suppressive measures affected the behavior of many voters. Our electoral system was broken long before Trump and his enablers gained power.
What is one learning experience you took from 2020?
It's so important to be patient with the process during an election, and especially on Election Day. Anyone who has volunteered or worked in an election knows how difficult it is to wait for the results, but given the unique circumstances of 2020, this feeling was exacerbated among our staff. We constantly had to remind ourselves, and everyone in our communities: Every vote must be counted and we won't know the winner of the presidential election on election night. That is okay. Many states have antiquated systems of waiting to count mail-in ballots and, as a result, those ballots took a few days to process. It was more critical in 2020 to remind ourselves, our friends and our families to be patient through this process.
Now let's look ahead. What issues will your organization prioritize in 2021?
Even though we made tremendous progress in 2020, election administration in the United States is a patchwork, with differing state laws, thousands of local election jurisdictions nationwide, countless outdated systems and policies, and a history of unequal access that dates back to the founding. We have a long way to go to ensure every eligible voter can register, vote and have their vote counted.
Thankfully, we know how to get there. This year, the Voter Protection Corps will focus our efforts on pushing state and local leaders to implement important reforms outlined in our Democracy Benchmark. The report provides specific recommendations, including:
- Voter registration: Every state must offer same-day registration, ensure online voter registration is accessible and entirely online for all eligible voters, adopt automatic voter registration, relax restrictions on third-party voter registration, allow teenagers to pre-register, and end the racist practice of disenfranchising people with felony convictions.
- Voting in person: Every state must provide access to at least 15 days of early voting with uniform hours that include mornings, nights and weekends; allow voters to vote at any Election Day voter center in their local election jurisdiction rather than requiring voters to use an assigned polling place; abolish or relax discriminatory and unnecessary voter identification requirements; reduce the risk of frivolous and intimidating voter challenges; and minimize law enforcement presence at voting sites.
- Vote by mail: Every state must adopt no-excuse voting by mail, allow voters to request mail ballots online, provide multiple options for returning mail ballots (including by mail, at a dropbox or voting site, and allowing a person the voter trusts to return the ballot for them), provide prepaid postage, ensure all mail ballots received within a week of Election Day are counted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, prevent local election offices from rejecting mail ballots unnecessarily, and provide voters the opportunity to fix problems that cause their mail ballots to be rejected.
- Election administration capacity: Every state must assume responsibility for ensuring that local election offices have the funding and flexibility they need for adequate capacity during election season. State election offices should also have the funding, infrastructure and mandate to ensure that every eligible voter is able to vote conveniently, and that their votes are counted.
How will Democratic control of the federal government change the ways you work toward your goals?
State and local leaders carry great responsibility for righting many of the wrongs we saw in 2020, and many of the states where reform is needed most continue to be led by forces that oppose increased access. Still, it is also essential that the Biden administration and Congress prioritize voting rights at the federal level. We encourage Congress to quickly pass the For The People Act and the John Lewis Act, among other measures.
What do you think will be your biggest challenge moving forward? And how do you plan to tackle it?
Those responsible for perpetuating disinformation and attempting to overthrow our democracy in the horrific attack at the Capitol — including President Donald Trump and Republican members of Congress — must be held accountable. Policymakers must not use lies about the integrity of our election to justify voter suppression. State legislatures across the country are seeking to curtail voting opportunities that have been proven to expand access to the ballot — such as early and mail-in voting -— and erect other barriers that make it harder for people to vote. The challenges before us are daunting. We must ensure that efforts to advance voting rights don't dissipate as we move away from the election. The Voter Protection Corps will continue to fight any efforts to suppress legitimate votes and use data to support state and local leaders as they continue to ensure that every American has safe, convenient, and equal access to their most fundamental right.
Finish the sentence. In two years, American democracy will ...
be innovative, efficient and inclusive.
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Efforts to make voting more complicated have lurched forward this week in the Republican-run legislatures of three additional major partisan battlegrounds.
The Arizona House voted Tuesday to purge inconsistent voters from the roster of people who are sent a mail-in ballot before every election. Hours later in Florida, a Senate committee advanced a package of fresh restrictions on voting. And GOP powers in Ohio put the finishing touches on their own multifaceted plan to make access to the ballot box more difficult.
Business executives have joined Democrats and civil rights advocates to excoriate all those efforts as aiming to disenfranchise voters of color — an argument that has not stopped fresh curbs from being enacted this year, in the name of bolstered election security, in purple states from Georgia to Iowa and most recently Montana.
These are the details of the developments in the states with the freshest legislative activity:
The measure is now one roll call, in the GOP-run Senate, away from the desk of Republican Gov. Steve Ducey.
The vote in the House was 31-29 along party lines, promoted mainly by Republicans who have continued to push the evidence-free allegation that fraud cost former President Donald Trump the state's 11 electoral votes last year.
Under their bill, people who don't return any ballot for any election for four years would be dropped from the roster of voters — which now includes three-quarters of Arizonans — who receive vote-by-mail packets before each election. (They would first get a warning they have 90 days to ask to stay on the list.)
About 200,000 voters, or one in five, sat out the primary and general elections in both 2018 and 2020 and would be subject to the purge. Republicans say the measure is justified to keep not-completed ballots out of the wrong hands. Democrats say the result would be confusion and ultimately suppression — especially of Latinos, Native Americans, young people and partian independents.
Greater Phoenix Leadership, a business group, and more than 50 company executives including the owner of the Arizona Cardinals have come out against the bill and two others that have not advanced as far in the Legislature, one to shrink the period for mail-in voting and the other to stiffen proof-of-identification requirements for those using the forms.
"These measures seek to disenfranchise voters. They are 'solutions' in search of a problem. They are attempts at voter suppression cloaked as reform — plain and simple," they said in an open letter last week, warning that passage could taint the state's reputation as a good place to live and work.
President Biden was the first Democrat to carry the state in six elections, albeit by just 10,000 votes out of 3.3 million cast, and after the November election Arizona has two Democratic senators for the first time since 1968.
The Senate Rules Committee approved the bill, 10-7. One Republican joined every Democrat in opposing it, despite GOP sponsors abandoning some of the more aggressive ideas in their original package — including intensified signature-matching rules for voters and an outright ban on drop boxes.
Instead, the bill would make drop boxes available only during early voting hours, not around the clock. It also would bar political operations from delivering water to voters within 150 feet of a polling place, add more ID requirements to vote-by-mail applications, end the ability of voters to be on a permanent roll to receive an absentee ballot for each election, limit third-party collections of ballots and boost the powers of partisan observers during vote tabulation.
As in other states, the debate was between Republicans who said they wanted to prevent cheating that otherwise "could happen," and Democrats who said that warding off a hypothetical was much less of a problem than suppressing the vote.
As approved, the measure is quite similar to a bill awaiting a vote in the Republican-majority House. But unless identical language wins passage in both chambers by the end of next week, when the Legislature adjourns, no voting bill will be presented to GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis this year. Florida has for a decade been considered the biggest purple state, but Republicans have won every topflight statewide contest in the past five years.
Republican legislators and GOP Secretary of State Frank LaRose say they are close to unveiling an election law overhaul proposal they believe can win bipartisan backing.
But a draft of the legislation that circulated last week prompted state House Democtatic Leader Emilia Sykes to send out a fundraising email describing the bill as "so draconian that the Georgia law looks mild in comparison."
That draft would ban ballot drop boxes, require two forms of ID to vote early or by mail, and eliminate early-in person balloting the Monday before the election. But negotiators say they are also considering a collection of proposals to ease voting, including a new online system and a later deadline to apply for an absentee ballot.
One draft version would prohibit the state from paying the postage on returned absentee ballots. Another would mandate postage-paid envelopes with all ballot request forms and ballots.
Unlike many other states, the Ohio Legislature meets all year — so there is plenty of time to alter rules ahead of the next election, when the marquee race in Ohio will be for an open, now-Republcian-held Senate seat. Trump secured its 18 electoral votes twice, meaning last year was the first time since 1860 that Ohio did not vote for the presidential victor.
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Battle lines are coming clearly into view for this year's most consequential war over election rules.
Republicans in Texas have refined their goals for making voting much more difficult than last year in what's become the nation's most populous political battleground — in some ways even tougher than under the new and nationally polarizing laws of Georgia, which is only about one-third the size.
And, this time, prominent companies are openly combating the effort long before the debate is over.
The GOP-majority state House is on course to advance, possibly as soon as next week, legislation that would prohibit drive-through or around-the-clock polling places, and make it a felony for counties to mail out unsolicited absentee ballot applications.
All three of those methods for boosting turnout were tried last year by Houston-centered Harris County, one of the nation's most populous and ethnically diverse counties — and the biggest Democratic population center in the state.
County officials said they were responding creatively but appropriately to the health risks posed by the pandemic. Republicans, who successfully sued or got state officials to restrict some of the easements, said the county had exceeded its authority and insisted the risk of election fraud was real — although there has been no credible evidence of cheating while behind the wheel or in the middle of the night last fall.
Nonetheless, the Republican-run state Senate passed a bill last month with essentially the same three central provisions as the bill awaiting a vote in the House. Both measures would also permit partisan poll watchers to get much closer than in the past to the kiosks where people are voting. The Senate bill would create new paperwork and disclosure rules for people helping others get to the polls and would limit counties' powers to extend the timetable for early in-person voting.
Civil rights groups maintain the poll watcher and voter-assistance provisions would amount to unconstitutional suppression of Black and Latino voters and could violate the rights of the disabled.
The Legislature has until the end of May to deliver a final compromise version to GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, who has signaled enthusiastic support.
The main impediment to the legislative drive appears to be the newly energized level of corporate opposition — spearheaded by major Texas employers American Airlines and Dell Technologies. They signed, along with hundreds of other companies and executives, the petition released Wednesday denouncing "any discriminatory legislation" that would make it more difficult for people to vote.
Republicans are pushing such bills in all but a few states, and they have already become law in Georgia and a handful of other places. Beside the debate in Austin, some of the other most prominent efforts are in Michigan and Arizona — states President Biden turned blue for himself last fall but where the GOP still controls the legislature.
Prominent GOP officials in Texas and elsewhere have pushed back hard against their corporate critics, with some threatening future reprisals in the form of tighter regulations and higher taxes for companies with which they have long had symbiotic relations. Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, Atlanta-base corporate giants that condemned the Georgia law only after it was passed, have been whipsawed ever since and did not sign the petition.
"Stay outta things you don't know anything about," Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick warned companies doing business in Texas at a new conference two weeks ago. "Corporate America does not run this country."
The measure would make even more restrictive some election regulations that are already among the tightest in the country; Texas, for example, is by far the biggest and most politically competitive state that still requires a specific excuse for voting by mail.
Republicans say a surge in vote totals in recent elections is proof the electorate is not being suppressed. Democrats note that it's natural for turnout to go up a lot in a state that's grown by an estimated 16 percent just in this decade. It's 4.2 million newer residents are almost half of the entire population of Georgia.
Of the 1.7 million ballots cast in Harris County last fall, 127,000 were at drive-thru centers and at least 10,000 were at 24-hour locations during non-business hours. Democratic state Sen. Carol Alvarado of Houston says more than half the people voting in their cars were Black, Latino or Asian.
That suggests the legislation's enactment could suppress the vote of minorities, who tend to vote Democratic, even as the GOP sponsors insist their efforts are about promoting election security and not about gaining electoral advantage.
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