Debate over voting by mail intensifies in Florida Capitol

‘Ballot harvesting’ among issues being targeted by Florida lawmakers

An election worker places a vote-by-mail ballot into an official ballot drop box outside of an early voting site, Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, in Miami. Florida begins in-person early voting in much of the state Monday. With its 29 electoral votes, Florida is crucial to both candidates in order to win the White House. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) (Lynne Sladky, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida Republicans continued their drive Monday to rewrite the state’s vote-by-mail system, despite acknowledging that the state’s presidential contest last fall was a national model.

The push could possibly undo recent advances by Democrats in absentee balloting -- by adding new requirements that critics say could make it more difficult for some to cast a ballot.

The proposal before a House committee was immediately decried by Democrats and voting rights advocates. They said adding new layers of inconvenience could make voting more troublesome and add financial and staffing burdens for elections officials around Florida, a state once ridiculed for its 2000 presidential recount fiasco.

Among other issues, the bill targets “ballot harvesting,” saying candidates or committees would not be able to take your mail-in ballot and drop it off for you at any drop-off site.

The bill says only a family member or someone who lives in your home could drop it off.

State Republican lawmakers are moving forward with plans to improve security for mail-in voting.

The measure, advanced along party lines on Monday by the House Public Integrity and Elections Committee, would also require 24-hour monitoring of ballot drop boxes -- either by guards, elections officials during work hours or by surveillance cameras during off-hours. And would require voters to provide identification to submit a ballot at a dropbox, which critics say could cause long lines at drop-off sites and make them inconvenient.

Critics said the moves could also complicate the process of updating registration information by requiring voters to submit an identification number, such as partial Social Security numbers.

Especially troublesome for elections officers and voter rights advocates is a push to require signatures on absentee ballots be matched only with the most recent signature on file, and exclude any previous signatures that might capture some of the variances in how people sign their names. Critics said that could lead to a spike in rejected ballots because of partisan-tinged scrutiny.

As trouble erupted in ballot counting in other states during the presidential election, Florida officials, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, hailed their state’s relatively trouble-free balloting as ``the gold standard.``

Nonetheless, Florida lawmakers soon began looking into changes into voting by mail, which was once dominated by Republicans but emerged last year as a growing strength for Democrats.

The Senate is considering its own changes to how vote-by-mail ballots are handled, including the banning of drop boxes.

Both versions would also narrow the time period covered by a single application for an absentee ballot from two general elections cycles to just one. The Senate’s version would wipe out the advantage Democrats now have over Republicans in the number of absentee voters, but the House version would retain applications already in place.

The group representing Florida’s 67 county election supervisors said it supported safe and secure elections, but expressed concern about the proposals.

``Calling for unnecessary election reforms doesn’t just endanger our ability to conduct elections efficiently and effectively. It also risks destroying the voter confidence that we have worked so hard to earn,`` the group said in a letter released Monday.

``Florida’s Supervisors of Elections feel strongly that we must be advocates for our voters,`` the letter said. ``It’s our intention that all eligible voters have convenient and ample opportunities to vote, and that the elections in which they cast their ballots are safe and secure.``

Some 4.8 million Floridians voted by mail in November, accounting for about 44% of the 11 million votes cast.

Despite concerns over potential ballot fraud, Republicans have not been able to produce any substantive examples of widespread abuse in Florida _ and instead have raised concerns about problems in other states.

``Why all of these changes?’' Rep. Susan Valdez, a Democrat, asked during Monday’s hearing. ``Was there anything around the state of Florida that prompted this to come up? Help me understand.’'

The bill’s lead sponsor replied that there were indeed problems, although he did not give specifics.

``There are other problems that happened in other states that we recognized,`` said Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a Republican. ``We should never have to wait for a problem to occur to head off that problem.’'

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 deliver drop into special collection boxes. Many of those boxes were outside elections offices and other government buildings.

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.

About the Authors:

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013 and reports every weekday for The Morning Show.