State Senate passes controversial Florida elections changes

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Three precincts vote at Feather Sound Community Church near Ulmerton Road in Pinellas County. By Ashley Whitney/WMNF News (2015 file).

By Dara Kam ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate on Wednesday approved a sweeping elections bill aimed at continuing Republican leaders’ efforts to crack down on voter-registration groups and ensuring Gov. Ron DeSantis doesn’t have to resign from office to run for president.

Under the bill, approved along party lines, 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 within 10 days.

The bill (SB 7050), which now will go to the House, also would shorten the time for voters to request mail-in ballots.

The Republican-controlled Legislature for years has backed measures targeting what are known as “third-party” registration groups, imposing hefty fines and other sanctions for failing to comply with laws. About 2,000 groups have registered with the state to be able to sign up voters, but not all are active, Senate Ethics and Elections Chairman Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, said during debate Wednesday.

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 that 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.

“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 Burgess, who is helping 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 measure also includes a contentious provision that would change the wording on voter registration cards. The proposed change came after about 20 people were arrested for voting illegally, including some who believed they were eligible to vote because county supervisors of elections had provided voter ID cards.

Confusion over voter eligibility stems, in part, from a 2018 constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to felons who had fulfilled their sentences. Under a law passed by the Legislature and signed by DeSantis in 2019, felons must pay fees and fines associated with their crimes to be eligible to vote. But determining whether fines and fees have been zeroed out, especially in cases that are decades old, has proven to be an onerous and in some cases impossible endeavor.

The bill would change the wording on voter registration cards to make it clear that the onus is on individuals -– not on state or local elections officials — to determine voting eligibility.

“This card is for information purposes only. This card is proof of registration but not legal verification of eligibility to vote. It is the responsibility of a voter to keep his or her eligibility status current. A voter may confirm his or her eligibility with the Department of State,” new voter-registration cards would say.

A coalition of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Common Cause Florida and the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, sent a letter to legislative leaders on Tuesday objecting to numerous parts of the bill, including the proposed ID card wording.

The wording “sends mixed signals to voters, and in some cases may dissuade eligible citizens from voting altogether. It also continues the state’s pattern of behavior in abdicating its role in verifying voter eligibility and passes that responsibility on to average citizens, who do not know the complexities of election law,” the coalition’s letter said.

But Burgess said, “adding the disclaimer is a good notice to the voter of stuff that could potentially happen today, as it is.”

The bill also would require county clerks of court to provide weekly reports to elections supervisors identifying registered voters who have been convicted of felonies and whose voting rights haven’t been restored. Currently, the state Division of Elections sends lists of flagged voters to local officials, who are responsible for removing people from the voting rolls.

Sen. Tracie Davis, a Jacksonville Democrat who worked for the Duval County supervisor of elections office for more than a decade, said local elections officials don’t have the resources or training to vet voters’ eligibility.

“We have spoken to many supervisors of elections that are saying they don’t know how to do this,” she said.

The bill also “clarifies” that an elected official in Florida would not have to resign from office to run for president or vice president. Although DeSantis has not formally announced his candidacy, he is widely expected to seek the Republican presidential nomination next year.

“What I wanted to do, because everybody has been talking about it, I just wanted to clarify it for everyone that’s out there. So, that’s what the amendment does. It says if you are running for president or vice president, you do not need to resign,” said Sen. Travis Hutson, a St. Augustine Republican who sponsored an amendment that included the resign-to-run change.

But Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Hollywood, argued DeSantis shouldn’t get special treatment.

“Folks, I don’t think that the governor should be able to be politically married but continue to date,” Pizzo said.

The bulk of the bill focuses on third-party registration groups. The proposal would make it a crime to copy or retain voter-registration applicants’ personal data. Groups would be required to provide receipts to anyone who signs up to vote. The measure also would shorten from 14 to 10 days the length of time groups have to turn in applications to elections supervisors and impose a $50-per-day fine for each application that is turned in late. The measure also would prohibit convicted felons and non-U.S. citizens from “handling” completed voter registration applications.

The bill creates “hurdles and barriers,” Davis argued Wednesday, adding, “We are not expanding access to voting. We are crippling certain communities.”

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