By Dara Kam ©2023 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — As he entered the 2024 race for the White House, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday signed a major elections bill that places additional restrictions on voter registration groups and helps clear the way for him to run for president without resigning from office.
The League of Women Voters of Florida quickly filed a federal lawsuit contending that the restrictions on voter-registration groups violate First Amendment and due-process rights.
“This is a lawsuit challenging burdensome, unnecessary, and irrational restrictions on constitutionally protected voter registration speech and activity of third-party voter registration organizations in violation of the (U.S. Constitution’s) First and Fourteenth Amendment,” said the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Tallahassee.
The 96-page bill, passed by the Legislature in late April, is a continuation of a years-long effort by DeSantis and Republican lawmakers to make elections-law changes that they contend are necessary to prevent wrongdoing. Democrats, meanwhile, argue the moves are aimed at making it harder to vote and target Black and Hispanic people.
Democrats also harshly criticized part of the bill (SB 7050) that changed what is known as the state’s “resign-to-run” law to help clear the way for DeSantis’ presidential bid. The governor filed federal paperwork for his candidacy Wednesday.
Florida law has said any state officeholder who “qualifies for federal public office must resign from the office he or she presently holds if the terms, or any part thereof, run concurrently with each other.” But the bill created an exemption for candidates for president or vice president, effectively allowing DeSantis to avoid having to submit his resignation as he runs for president.
During a debate on the bill last month, Democrats argued the Legislature should not create an exemption to benefit only DeSantis, noting that state lawmakers in the past had to submit their resignations to run in special elections for congressional seats.
“If you’re going to do it (change the law), you should really consider at least evening the playing field for others, not selectively carving it out for one man,” Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said on April 28. “I’m not going to change a law for one man.”
DeSantis signed the elections bill and 19 other measures Wednesday without any comment.
Other contentious parts of the bill are directed at “third-party” registration groups that help people sign up to vote.
Under the bill, voter registration groups could face a maximum of $250,000 in fines each year — five times the current $50,000 annual cap — for violating laws such as failing to submit completed registration applications to elections supervisors on time.
The measure shortens from 14 to 10 days the length of time groups have to turn applications in to supervisors and imposes a $50-per-day fine for each application that is turned in late. The groups also will have to issue receipts to people when collecting voter registration applications.
During debate on the measure last month, Democrats pointed to research that indicated one out of 10 Black voters and one out of 10 Hispanic voters use third-party groups to sign up to vote. They argued the increased penalties are designed to make it harder for Black and Hispanic voters to cast ballots.
Also, Democrats said proposed changes are aimed at keeping Republicans, who hold supermajorities in the House and Senate, in control. The bill is designed to “achieve the outcomes that the people in power want,” Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, said during an April 26 debate.
“This really is suppression. It is suppression, just like poll taxes. That was suppression. Just like violence against people who wanted to vote was suppression. Just like intimidation when you had the Ku Klux Klan march through certain communities was suppression,” Thompson, who is Black, said. “So I see different characters but the same objective, and that’s to make sure that only certain people vote.”
But Senate Ethics and Elections Chairman Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican who helped shepherd the bill, disputed Democrats’ objections.
“This bill does not and will not hinder anyone’s right to vote, nor would I ever subscribe my name to something that could even remotely be concluded to be voter suppression. There is nothing in this bill that makes it harder for a lawfully registered voter to cast their ballot,” he said.
The bill also shortens the time for voters to request mail-in ballots and eases campaign-finance reporting requirements for candidates and political committees.
A coalition of three-dozen groups recently asked DeSantis to veto the bill, arguing it would hurt the state’s elections and voter registration organizations.
“Today, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law SB 7050, which will do widespread harm to Florida’s elections, especially the important work of community organizations who register people to vote who may not traditionally get involved in the democratic process,” Brad Ashwell, Florida state director of the group All Voting is Local, said in a Twitter post Wednesday.
The bill signing marked the third year in a row that DeSantis and Republican lawmakers approved elections overhauls. Last year’s version included fulfilling a DeSantis request to create a first-of-its-kind Office of Election Crimes & Security to investigate alleged voting irregularities.