Legal battle begins as Florida's DeSantis signs Republican-drafted voting bill

Democrats and voter rights advocates say the partisan move will make it harder for some voters to cast ballots

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, signs bills revamping Florida's literacy and early childhood learning in West Miami Middle School in Miami on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald via AP)
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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a sweeping elections bill into law on Thursday that he and other Republicans said would place guardrails against fraud, even as they acknowledged there were no serious signs of voting irregularities last November.

Democrats and voter rights advocates said the partisan move will make it harder for some voters to cast ballots.

Aiming for a broad impact among Donald Trump's party base, Mr DeSantis staged the signing on a live broadcast of Fox & Friends on Thursday morning, flanked by a small group of Republican politicians in Palm Beach County. Other media organisations were excluded.

“Right now, I have what we think is the strongest election integrity measures in the country,” the governor said as he signed it.

“We're also banning ballot harvesting. We're not going to let political operatives go and get satchels of votes and dump them in some drop box.”

Republicans previously said they knew of no such problems in Florida and elections supervisors across the state did not ask for any of the changes, saying that some of the new rules may prove cumbersome and expensive to enact.

Democrats and voter advocates attacked the law as a blatant attempt to impede access to the polls so that Republicans might regain an advantage.

“The legislation has a deliberate and disproportionate impact on elderly voters, voters with disabilities, students and communities of colour. It’s a despicable attempt by a one-party-ruled legislature to choose who can vote in our state and who cannot. It’s undemocratic, unconstitutional, and un-American,” said Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

Charlie Crist, a Democratic representative and former Florida governor who announced his challenge to Mr DeSantis this week, tweeted: “This is the difference between @GovRonDeSantis and me. He locks out the public and caters to Fox News. When I was governor, everyone was invited in — Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. And when I’m governor again, this will be a Florida for all.”

While Georgia is the current flashpoint in the national battle over elections laws, other states – led by Republicans still unsettled by Mr Trump's presidential loss in November – moved to rewrite election laws.

The national campaign to do so is motivated by Mr Trump’s unfounded allegations that irregularities in the election process, particularly in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona, led to his loss – a baseless claim that inspired the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6.

The Georgia law requires a photo ID to vote absentee by mail, after more than 1.3 million Georgia voters used that option during the Covid-19 pandemic. It also cuts the time people have to request an absentee ballot and limits where ballot drop boxes can be placed and when they can be used.

Some of the changes in Florida’s election rules contain similar provisions. Democrats acknowledge that the Florida law will not be as draconian as the one recently adopted by its neighbour to the north.

The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature passed the law without a single Democratic vote, even as Florida Republicans hailed their state as a model for conducting elections.

But Republicans countered that the new law is a pre-emptive move against those who would undermine the sanctity of the ballot box, even if they could not cite specific instances of widespread fraud. Republicans argue that the new rules do nothing to keep people from voting.

The newly signed law restricts when ballot drop boxes can be used and who can collect ballots – and how many. To protect against so called “ballot harvesting”, an electoral Good Samaritan can only collect and return the ballots of immediate family and no more than two from unrelated people. Under the new rules, drop boxes must be supervised and will be available only when elections offices and early voting sites are open.

It requires that a voter making changes to registration data provides an identifying number, possibly a driver’s licence number or a partial social security number.

The governor’s signature extends a no-influence zone to 50 metres around polling places. And election 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.

Mr DeSantis pushed Republican legislators to deliver the sweeping rewrites of rules on voting by mail and drop boxes, and to impose new layers of ID requirements for routine changes to a voter's registration record.

Spurred by concerns that the pandemic would keep voters from voting on election day last year, the Democratic Party urged people to vote early and through the mail.

The result: Florida Democrats outvoted Republicans by mail for the first time in years.