TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Republicans moved Wednesday to rewrite vote-by-mail rules, banning ballot drop boxes and resetting the absentee ballot rolls in a step that would require millions of voters to reapply for mail-in ballots ahead of next year's gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections.
Republicans characterized the changes as mere tweaks in a system that was universally praised after November's presidential election — for both the record number of mail-in votes cast and for the nearly glitch-free handling of those ballots.
But Democrats and voter rights advocates charged that political motives were behind the efforts in Florida and elsewhere, asserting there's no reason to tinker with a system that isn’t broken.
“Changing the vote-by-mail process, especially following a major election, makes no sense unless you’re looking for ways to confuse voters into not voting or to make it harder so they don’t vote,” said Trish Neely, speaking on behalf of the Florida League of Women Voters of Florida.
Despite objections by county elections supervisors across Florida, the state Senate's Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee advanced the bill on a party-line vote. One member of the committee, Sen. Joe Gruters, is the chair of the Republican Party of Florida.
Some 4.8 million Floridians voted by mail in November, accounting for about 44% of the 11 million votes cast.
Democrats and Republicans alike, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, hailed the election as a national model of efficiency as Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona struggled to tally their votes.
Nevertheless, Florida's Republican governor and his legislative allies have moved to change the vote-by-mail system. They are also moving to restrict other people from dropping off a voter’s ballot, a practice known as “ballot harvesting.”
“It's not that there was a debacle so we have to fix it. But do we have to wait for a debacle?” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, the Republican who is sponsoring the Senate version of the effort.
Florida is accustomed to election debacles — the biggest arising from the dramatic 2000 presidential election recount, when “hanging chads” became a household phrase.
“Why can't we take something that's working well and put guardrails on it," Baxley said, "and keep it safe so it doesn't have a debacle and create all this discord?”
Despite concerns over ballot fraud, in reality or in theory, Republicans have not been able to produce any substantive examples of widespread abuse.
In fact, a study by a University of Florida professor showed that only about 1% of mail-in-ballots in November were rejected, mostly because of mismatched or missing signatures. But the study released Tuesday noted that three-quarters of those were fixed in time to be counted.
While elections supervisors have welcomed a provision of the bill that permanently allows them to start counting absentee ballots sooner, they oppose other key changes. Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley, the vice chair of the statewide group representing county elections officials, disputed assertions that drop boxes are not adequately secure.
Baxley, who has previously suggested the U.S. Postal Service could not be trusted with the task of securing and delivering ballots, now says that the only drop boxes that should be used are mailboxes and those at post offices.
For years, Republicans have dominated vote by mail in Florida, but Democrats worried that the pandemic would keep voters from casting ballots on Election Day. So they pushed hard to get Democratic voters to apply for absentee ballots that they could put in the mail or drop into special collection boxes. Many of those boxes were outside elections offices and other government buildings.
DeSantis also has endorsed a provision that would require voters to apply for absentee ballots every year, instead of the two-year time period currently in place.
Especially troubling for Democrats is how that rule would be applied retroactively, meaning that hundreds of thousands of voters who might believe they are still eligible for an absentee ballot next year will have to reapply to vote by mail.
In November, Florida Democrats outvoted Republicans by mail by 680,000 more mail ballots. While then-President Donald Trump won the state by 3%, the state's long history of close elections has led to heated jockeying for any advantage at the ballot box.
The proposal before the Florida Legislature would essentially wipe those new Democratic voters from the rolls ahead of 2022, when DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio lead the list of incumbent Republicans up for reelection.
Bobby Caina Calvan, The Associated Press