Fried, Jacksonville Democrats fire back at controversial DeSantis, GOP voting bill

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services during a news conference. (Copyright 2021 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Thursday that he and other Republicans say will lead to more secure elections, Jacksonville Democrats and a potential opponent in the upcoming governor’s race blasted the new laws, saying they amount to voter suppression.

This new law restricts when ballot drop boxes can be used, and who can collect ballots — and how many. It mandates that drop boxes must be guarded and available only when elections offices and early voting sites are open. To protect against “ballot harvesting,” an electoral good Samaritan can only collect and return the ballots of immediate family and no more than two from unrelated people.

“Despite proclaiming the universal success of Florida’s election system, Republican legislators and Governor DeSantis have joined the nationwide voter suppression movement, turning debunked ballot conspiracies from the 2020 election into a democracy destroying, autocratic policy that suppresses the votes of Floridians,” said Daniel Henry, Duval County Democratic Party Chairman.

Elections supervisors across the state did not ask for the changes, warning that some of the new rules may prove cumbersome and expensive to implement. Voter advocates assailed the law as a blatant attempt to impede access to the polls so Republicans might retain an advantage.

Democrat Nikki Fried, the elected Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services who is widely expected to run against DeSantis in 2022, attacked the governor Thursday for signing the bill during a live broadcast on “Fox & Friends” and away from the eyes of local media.

“If this was really for the good of the people, then he would have done it publicly, and there would have been Democrats there, there would have been minorities there, there would have been people embracing and celebrating that we are going to have a fantastically secured election,” Fried said. “This was not about election security. This is about election suppression and silencing the votes of the people.”

The Florida law also extends a no-influence zone to 150 feet (50 meters) from 100 feet around polling places, which could prevent people from supplying food and water to people waiting in line. And elections officials would have to let candidates and other observers witness some key election night moments in the ballot-handling process. Any violations could prompt hefty fines of up to $25,000.

The groups filing suit against the state say not only do they want an injunction granted to stop the law from being in effect, but they also want the changes to be ruled unconstitutional.

“We’re going to make sure our elections are transparent, and they’re not being funded by special interests,” DeSantis said. “We’re also going to continue with voter ID which is very, very important to make sure that you are who you say you are. And we’re also going to make sure that we don’t have ballot harvesting, okay, it’s not for some political operatives to get a satchel full of votes and dump them off.”

The law requires that a voter changing registration data provide an identifying number, possibly a driver’s license number or a partial Social Security number, which advocates say could add a layer of inconvenience and keep people from voting.

Supporters of the bill say it is an extra safeguard against voter fraud, but Fried said Florida doesn’t have a fraud problem.

“We’ve never had these problems,” Fried said. “As somebody who is a problem solver, I like to walk into a room, and I say ‘Hey, what are the issues? Let’s solve them.’ I don’t create problems. And that’s exactly what this piece of legislation was trying to fix -- a problem that didn’t exist. That wasn’t an issue, and this is just their mask of what is voter suppression.”

The new law also requires voters who want an absentee ballot to apply for one every election cycle. Republicans had initially proposed making this retroactive, which would have immediately erased the Democratic advantage, but they backed off that move in the final version.

Fried said she plans to get involved in the legal fight against the bill and directed her team to file an amicus brief in conjunction with the lawsuit that was filed Thursday by The League of Women Voters of Florida.

The league joined the Black Voters Matter Fund, the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans and others in assailing the new law in a federal lawsuit filed minutes after the signing. A separate federal suit filed in Tallahassee by the NAACP and Common Cause also says the law targets people who are Black, Latino or disabled.

Zachary Morris, with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, is representing the NAACP and Common Cause in their suit against the Florida secretary of state who oversees the elections system.

Morris said the law is an act of voter suppression and a direct response to the increase in black voter turnout during the 2020 election.

“The restrictions in this law will affect all Florida voters by making it more difficult to vote. But that in particular, there are going to be specific burdens on black voters, Latino voters, and disabled voters,” Morris said.

VIDEO: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a wide-ranging list of new voting restrictions into law.

According to the MIT Election Lab, a public opinion research study found minority voters tend to possess photo IDs at lower rates than white people. According to MIT, there’s been no large-scale study to examine the effects of ID laws on turnout. But, recent studies have shown negative correlations between strict photo ID laws and turnout.

The bill is drawing comparisons to a controversial law passed in Georiga that included new restrictions on voting by mail and gave the Legislature greater control over how elections are run. Major League Baseball, which pulled its All-Star Game from Atlanta, and the CEOs of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola have condemned the Georgia laws as too restrictive.

About the Authors:

Digital reporter who has lived in Jacksonville for more than 25 years and focuses on important local issues like education and the environment.

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.