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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At this time in a normal redistricting year, states would already be drawing the lines for the next decade's election maps. But delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have upended many states' timelines.
The Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal public policy institute at New York University Law School, released a 27-page report Thursday providing a state-by-state assessment of how these delays could impact the redistricting process.
While the delays were necessary, the report notes that as of mid-April many states had yet to update their redistricting deadlines to account for a more compressed timeline. If adjustments aren't made, courts may need to step in and create temporary maps for upcoming elections.
The Census Bureau has said it expects to release apportionment counts by the end of April, untabulated redistricting data by mid-August and finally full population and demographic data by the end of September — months after the typical delivery dates.
These delays will most significantly impact New Jersey and Virginia, which hold legislative elections in odd-numbered years and the new redistricting maps will not be ready before the primaries in June or even the general elections in November.
Last year, New Jersey adopted a constitutional amendment to keep its current districts through this year's elections and draw new ones ahead of the 2023 elections. Virginia is likely to follow a similar plan.
While the upcoming statewide elections aren't a factor for the majority of the country, many states are facing strict constitutional or statutory redistricting deadlines. Twenty-two states have fixed dates for redistricting, meaning they will need to adjust their schedules to accommodate for later data delivery.
Thirteen other states have slightly more flexibility because their redistricting deadlines are tied to the reporting or publication of census data. This means these states' deadlines will automatically adjust to the later release date. However, the 13 states may need to call special legislative sessions to complete the redistricting process or make other election adjustments.
Five states have redistricting deadlines set for early next year, and the Brennan Center anticipates the data delays having little to no impact on those states' mapmaking timelines.
Eleven states have no set deadlines for redistricting, but may still need to consider election adjustments or schedule special sessions to complete redistricting in a timely manner.
In addition to census-related obligations, 10 states have requirements to hold public hearings or comment periods during the redistricting process that will also need to be factored into any schedule adjustments.
"If states do not make the adjustments necessary to complete redistricting in a timely fashion, courts will then need to step in and draw temporary maps to ensure that legally compliant districts are in place for upcoming elections — a power they have used in the past," the report notes.
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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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Over the past year, states have issued hundreds of rule changes in response to the coronavirus pandemic, covering issues from public health and safety to business protocols to election procedures.
But one consequence of some of these emergency orders has been a shift in the balance of power at the state level. Ballotpedia reported Thursday that eight states have seen the governor's authority weakened by Covid-related legislation.
Governors generally have the authority to declare a state of emergency in cases of natural disasters, disease epidemics and other threats to public health. And in the early days of the pandemic, nearly all states issued lockdown or stay-at-home orders.
But in the months following, some states saw conflict between the executive and legislative branches on how to proceed with the orders. Lawmakers introduced hundreds of bills to limit gubernatorial emergency powers, and ultimately 10 were enacted in eight states.
Surprisingly, in most of those eight states, the same political party controlled the governorship and the legislature. Three were run by Republicans: Arkansas, Ohio and Utah. Two were Democratic: Colorado and New York. And the remaining three have Democratic governors and Republican-majority legislatures: Kansas, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
Here is a rundown of how these eight states have placed new limits on the governor's emergency powers authority:
Last month, the Legislature passed and Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed legislation that limits statewide emergency declarations to 60 days unless extended by the governor. The new law also allows lawmakers to block any state of emergency extensions made by the governor.
Last summer, the General Assembly passed and Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill that requires the governor to communicate with and provide information to state lawmakers following an emergency declaration.
Two new laws regarding emergency powers have been enacted in the last year in Kansas. The first, approved last summer, extended the coronavirus state of emergency, while banning Gov. Laura Kelly from declaring any new states of emergency in 2020 without first receiving approval from the state finance council. The law also limits how long the governor can close businesses and terminates emergency proclamations after 15 days unless extended by the Legislature.
The second measure also extended Kansas's state of emergency, while further limiting the governor's emergency powers. It allows anyone burdened by executive order, school board policy or county health directive to file a civil action in court, which must be heard within 72 hours. The law also empowers the Legislative Coordinating Council to override gubernatorial executive orders.
In February, the Republican-majority General Assembly enacted two new restrictive bills by voting to override Democatic Gov. Andy Beshear's vetoes. The first law limits a governor's emergency orders to 30 days unless extended by the legislature. It also requires the governor to receive approval from the attorney general before suspending a statute via executive order during an emergency.
The second law grants legislative committees more oversight of the governor's emergency regulations and requires public input for some orders.
Last month, the Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved a new law that repeals a provision of a law passed last year that extended the governor's executive order powers during a pandemic. The new law also allows the Legislature to revoke any executive order through concurrent resolution. It also requires the governor to create a searchable website that tracks all executive actions made during a pandemic.
The Legislature voted last month to override Gov. Mike DeWine's veto of a bill that restricts the governor's authority over public health orders. The new measure allows the Legislature to cancel public health orders after 30 days and requires the governor to renew such orders every 60 days. It also establishes a legislative panel overseeing the governor's public health orders.
Last summer, the Pennsylvania General Assembly enacted a law prohibiting the governor from directing agencies to ignore public records requests during states of emergency. At the time, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said he disagreed with the bill, but would "err on the side of transparency" and allow it to become law without his signature.
A constitutional amendment related to emergency declarations was also certified for the May 18 ballot. If approved by voters, the amendment would limit the governor's emergency declarations to 21 days unless the legislature extends them. It would also allow the General Assembly to pass a resolution, without needing the governor's signature, to extend or terminate an executive order during an emergency.
Last summer, the Legislature and Gov. Gary Herbert approved a measure that requires the governor to notify the legislative pandemic response team within 24 hours of taking any executive actions in response to a public health crisis, unless there is imminent threat to life or property. The law also allows the Legislature to issue a joint resolution to block any pandemic executive actions.
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