By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — A controversial elections bill focused largely on the state’s vote-by-mail process underwent an overhaul Thursday in the Florida House, but critics say it still poses unnecessary barriers to voters.
The revamped proposal, which addresses issues such as the use of mail-in ballot drop boxes and signature verification, relaxes some restrictions included in an earlier version of the bill.
Republican legislators are pushing the elections overhaul months after state GOP leaders, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, boasted about Florida’s smooth handling of the November elections. Republican lawmakers point to problems that erupted in other states after millions of voters decided to cast their ballots by mail amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Florida election supervisors’ use of drop boxes became an issue in the weeks leading up to the presidential election, as local officials sparred with the DeSantis administration over locations and whether boxes were required to be manned by supervisors’ personnel.
While a sweeping Senate bill (SB 90) would do away with drop boxes altogether, the House plan would allow supervisors to use them but would impose new restrictions.
Under the proposal approved Thursday by the House Appropriations Committee, supervisors could continue to use drop boxes at their offices if they are “continuously monitored in person” during regular office hours. Those drop boxes could be made available after hours only if they are “secured from tampering and monitored by video surveillance.” Copies of the videos would have to be provided to candidates or political parties within 24 hours of requests.
The House plan (HB 7041) would allow drop boxes to be used at other locations, but only during early voting hours. The boxes would have to be staffed by supervisors’ employees.
The measure, sponsored by Spring Hill Republican Blaise Ingoglia, also would require supervisors of elections to designate drop boxes at least 30 days before elections and prohibit officials from changing or moving the boxes after they’ve been designated. Contents of the boxes would have to be emptied and returned to supervisors’ offices daily.
Voters who want to submit ballots at drop boxes would have to show proof of identification or sign an “attestation” saying they did not have identification with them.
The revised House bill would subject supervisors to a $25,000 civil penalty if drop boxes are available when early voting is not underway.
“The intent of this bill is to continue Florida’s successful track record of securing our voter access and election transparency,” Ingoglia, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said before the committee’s party-line vote in favor of the bill.
But Democrats on the panel questioned Ingoglia about the need to crack down on drop boxes, which approximately 1.5 million Florida voters used in November.
“This all boils down to, we have plenty of safeguards when you vote in person. You have to show your ID,” Ingoglia said. “There are little or no safeguards when it comes to vote by mail.”
Rep. Nick Duran, D-Miami, pointed out that voters who submit mail-in ballots using mailboxes don’t have to show identification.
Ingoglia said the changes were necessary to ensure that supervisors are using drop boxes uniformly throughout the state.
“Yes, somebody can drop it in a mailbox, and that’s the way a lot of people do it now, but we can only control what we can control,” he said. “What we’ve seen is those drop boxes be used differently, different times, different locations all over the state of Florida.”
The House proposal also includes restrictions about who can handle other people’s mail-in ballots.
The bill would allow voters to pick up and drop off ballots of “immediate family” members — including children, parents, spouses, siblings, grandchildren and grandparents — as well as two other voters, if they have written permission from the other voters.
Democrats acknowledged that the changes made by Ingoglia to the measure Thursday improved the bill but said it needs work to get bipartisan support.
“It’s going into a decent direction. However there’s still very restrictive things in this bill,” said Rep. Tracie Davis, a Jacksonville Democrat who is a former deputy supervisor of elections. “I want us to get to a point where we’re both, all of our caucuses are on the same page with this.”
Republicans throughout the country are targeting mail-in ballots after the surge in voting by mail during the pandemic. More than 4.8 million Floridians cast ballots by mail in the November elections, compared to about 2.6 million in 2018, according to the state Division of Elections. Democrats relied far more heavily than Republicans on voting by mail in November.
DeSantis and other GOP leaders praised the Sunshine State’s handling of the November election, in which former President Donald Trump’s victory in Florida over now-President Joe Biden was decided well before midnight. But Republicans maintain that the state needs to clamp down on vote-by-mail procedures.
The House panel heard Thursday from more than a dozen people who spoke in favor of the proposal.
But organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Southern Poverty Law Center remained opposed, even after the changes adopted by the committee.
Ingoglia pushed back against criticism of the bill.
“We keep on hearing this is restricting and narrowing and not opening up access” to voting, he argued, pointing out that many other states do not allow drop boxes at all.
“So when you compare us to those states, we have a lot more access,” he said.