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New vote-by-mail rules move closer to Florida gov’s desk

April 26, 2021 GMT

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s statehouse swirled with the ghosts of the 2000 presidential election amid charges of voter suppression, as the state Senate approved a nationally watched election package Republicans tout as a move to preserve the integrity of elections but that Democrats worry will make it harder for some voters to cast ballots.

The Republican-led Legislature is poised to send a measure to Gov. Ron DeSantis that would enact new voter ID and signature requirements, restrict who can return completed ballots on an absentee voter’s behalf and place new rules on ballot drop boxes.

The debate in Florida’s statehouse comes in advance of next year’s election, when the governor’s mansion and a seat in the U.S. Senate again come before voters in a state well-known for its high-stakes, razor-thin elections.

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During the floor debate, Republicans and Democrats alike recalled how the state became a national laughing stock over hanging chads and a protracted elections count that kept the nation — and representative democracy itself — hanging for weeks.

“Everything came down to Florida. We were the laughingstock with the hanging chads,” said Sen. Joe Gruters, who also chairs the Republican Party of Florida. Other problems over the years added to the state’s population. “It seems like cycle after cycle we’ve had issues.”

Twenty years ago, it took five weeks of Florida recounts and court battles before Republican George W. Bush prevailed over Democrat Al Gore by 537 votes in the presidential race. The Florida recount demanded by the Gore campaign famously centered on problems with outmoded punch-card ballots with canvassers trying to figure out a voter’s intent amid ballots with “hanging chads” and “dimpled chads” on the cards. The case wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court, which halted the recount and handed the presidency to Bush.

Gruters and other Republicans contend that the proposals are part of the fine tuning that needs to occur “to ensure that we have integrity in the system.”

But critics have contended that Republicans were rewriting elections laws to erase the advantage Democrats have gained in voting by mail.

Millions of so-called absentee voters participated during the pandemic, casting ballots by mail or submitting their ballots at drop boxes outside elections offices or at early voting sites.

In all, some 4.8 million Floridians voted by mail in November, a record number that accounted for about 44% of the 11 million votes cast.

Florida Democrats outvoted Republicans by mail by 680,000 more absentee ballots. President Donald Trump still won Florida by about 3%, but the Democratic advantage prompted alarm among Republicans who long had the upper hand in absentee voting.

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The Senate proposal, passed 23-17, with one Republican joining all the chambers Democrats in voting against the measure, requires absentee ballots that are not dropped in the U.S. mail can only be returned in drop boxes when early voting sites and elections offices are open. It would limit how many vote-by-mail ballots a person can collect for delivery to those drop boxes, which would no longer be available in some counties at all hours of the day.

“Since voting is a right, why would we as a state attempt to reduce the right of a person to exercise their right to vote and in the manner in which they decide to vote,” said Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat.

“Let the people vote, let them vote the way they would like to vote,” she implored.

Voter rights advocates condemned passage of the measure known as Senate Bill 90.

“SB 90 will make it harder to vote in Florida,” said Michelle Kanter Cohen, the senior counsel and policy director for the Washington-based Fair Elections Center.

“This bill will make community voter registration drives more costly and more difficult for registration volunteers to serve their communities. It will make ballot drop boxes less accessible and less efficient,” she said.