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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Under pressure from voting rights groups, Georgia's third largest county will make it slightly easier to vote in the crucial Senate runoffs.
Cobb County planned to open only five instead of the usual 11 places for early in-person voting, which civil rights organizations complained would suppress the Black and Latino vote in the Atlanta suburbs. On Wednesday the county conceded the problem by moving one polling location and adding two more, but only for the final week of early voting.
But that partial victory may soon be overwhelmed by a bigger challenge to the cause of civic participation in the nation's newest big purple state. Top Republicans say they'll soon launch a bid in the General Assembly to reverse many of the policies that made voting easier this year.
Making the ballot box accessible to all who are eligible has long been a central tenet of the democracy reform movement, but it is of particular short-term importance in Georgia because who votes in the twin Jan. 5 runoffs will determine which party controls the Senate next year — which will decide whether any aspect of the good-governance agenda stands a chance in Congress.
Six voting and civil rights groups sent a letter Monday to Cobb County officials asking for all 11 voting centers that were used in the general election to also be open for the runoffs.
The new plan doesn't go as far as the groups hoped. Instead, one voting center was relocated to the southern part of the county where there is a higher Black population. And two more locations, one in the north and another in the south, will be open the final four days before early voting ends on New Year's Eve.
The county elections chief, Janine Eveler, said staffing shortages because of the holidays and the coronavirus surge made it impossible to do more than that. "We have simply run out of people," she said. "Many workers told us they spent three weeks working 14- or 15-hour days and they will not do that again."
Meanwhile, the Republican majority caucus in the state Senate promised Tuesday to make a tightening of election laws one of their top priorities in the new year.
They said they were responding to "the calls of millions of Georgians who have raised deep and heartfelt concerns that state law has been violated and our election process abused" in the general election.
Many in the GOP base are furious and suspicious about an election where Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry the state in seven elections and neither of the GOP senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, was able to muster the 50 percent the state requires for re-election.
The GOP lawmakers said they would push legislation to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting, bar the use of drop boxes to return mail ballots and add a photo ID requirement for those seeking to cast an absentee ballot.
These proposed changes are in direct response to the Nov. 3 election in which many more voters than ever before — in Georgia and across the country — decided to cast their ballots by mail due to the Covid-19 pandemic. President Trump and many other Republicans have repeatedly and falsely asserted that widespread mail voting leads to fraud. There has been no evidence before or after this year's election to back up that claim.
The Republican legislators are also requesting an investigation and additional audits into the Nov. 3 election. Three counts of presidential ballots so far have produced the same result: Biden won by about 12,000 votes.
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Newsy's Vote Smarter 2020 series aims to answer your questions about the most unusual election in modern history. From early voting to counting ballots to staying safe at the polls, get all the information you need to successfully cast your ballot this year.
This video is being made available on The Fulcrum through our partnership with Newsy — "delivering news with the why."
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Early in-person voting can begin in Texas earlier than usual next week, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, greenlighting the singular significant move by the state to make its election easier in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The justices rebuffed several top Republicans who sued to keep the polling places closed for another six days beyond Tuesday. They were furious that Gov. Greg Abbott, who's also Republican, issued an executive order this summer adding those days to the election calendar, arguing he'd violated a state law that voting in person could not start until Oct. 19.
Since voting by mail remains more restrictive in Texas than any other battleground state, and since there's no more "one punch" option for quickly casting a straight-party ballot, long lines at the polls are nearly assured. The added earlier days were designed to hold down the Election Day crowds in the nation's second most populous state, where the 38 electoral votes could fall either way and so could half a dozen congressional contests.
The suit was filed by state GOP Chairman Allen West, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and several members of the Legislature.
But the state's highest civil court, where Republicans hold all the seats, ruled 7-1 that the plaintiffs waited too late to sue and noted the election has already started because people are returning their absentee ballots. "To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion," Chief Justice Nathan Hecht wrote for the majority.
But at the same time Wednesday, the same court as expected put the final nail in an effort by Harris County, the state's largest and a Democratic stronghold, to send unsolicited mail ballot applications to all of Houston's 2 million voters. State law does not leave any room for such a move, the justices ruled. (Mail voting in Texas is generally limited to those older than 64, the disabled and people out of town for the entire election season. But more than 200,000 applications have already been filed, double the county's usual total)
Harris is spending $27 million to expand voting access, including by tripling the number of early polling places and keeping seven of them open for all 24 hours of Oct. 29, the final day for early voting.
Last week Abbott reversed himself on another election easement he'd made and said there could be only one drop box for returning absentee ballots in each county — the six with more than a million people, the six bigger than 1,500 square miles and the other 242 as well. Lawsuits challenging that move had been filed in federal and state courts.
Democrats and voting rights groups have unsuccessfully pressed to ease voting on several other fronts — most prominently by allowing Texans to vote by mail by claiming fear of Covid-19 exposure as a reason, and by blocking the state law that ended straight-ticket voting. The latter move means more time at not-always socially distanced polling places.
While many counties have promised solid safety precautions at the polls, including plenty of sanitizer and mandated six-foot gaps between voters and poll workers alike, masks are encouraged but not required at polling places — one of the few exemptions in Abbott's statewide mask order.
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