Debate over voting by mail intensifies in Florida statehouse

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 critics say could make casting a ballot more difficult for some.

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The proposal before a House committee was decried by Democrats and voting rights advocates. They said imposing 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.

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

Critics also said the moves could 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 that 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 partisan-tinged scrutiny and a spike in rejected ballots.

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."

“We should never rest on our laurels, and we should never pass up an opportunity to make a good thing even better,” said Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a Republican who sponsored the House bill.

Republicans have focused those efforts on the state's vote-by-mail system, 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 except for U.S. Mail 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.

“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."

The vice chair of the group, Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley, said there were “substantial problems” with the bill, including digitizing signatures and making them publicly available — which he and others said could lead to identity theft.

The new signature-matching process "amounts to creating a tool that allows for great manipulation and targets the ability to go after certain voters," said Earley, who joined key Democrats on a press call after the committee hearing.

Some 4.8 million Floridians voted by mail in November, accounting for about 44% of the 11 million votes cast. In November, Florida Democrats outvoted Republicans by mail by 680,000 more mail ballots, an advantage that did not necessarily translate to victory. Then-President Donald Trump won the state by about 3%.

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.”

Ingoglia, 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,” Ingoglia replied. “We should never have to wait for a problem to occur to head off that problem.”