TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) -- With time running out before the end of this year's legislative session, Florida lawmakers signed off Thursday night on a controversial elections bill that would make it harder for voters to cast ballots by mail.
Republican lawmakers backed away from more-stringent proposals contained in earlier versions of the elections overhaul. But the bill continued to draw fierce opposition from Democrats who said it would put up barriers to voting.
The measure (SB 90) focuses largely on vote-by-mail processes, mirroring in some aspects proposals being considered or passed by other GOP-led legislatures throughout the country. The proposals have come after a huge increase in the November elections of vote-by-mail ballots cast by Democrats nationwide, including in Florida.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republican leaders boasted about Florida's smooth handling of the 2020 elections amid the coronavirus pandemic. But many of the changes included in the bill, which is now headed to DeSantis, are rooted in problems that arose in other states, including states that lacked Florida's decades-long history of voting by mail.
The elections revamp has been one of the most contentious issues of the 60-day legislative session, scheduled to end Friday. Critics of the plan say the proposed changes are unnecessary and are evocative of Jim Crow-era laws and regulations designed to prevent Black people from voting.
The Senate voted 23-17 to pass the revamped version of the legislation on Thursday, with one Republican --- Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg --- crossing party lines to join Democrats in opposition. The House followed Thursday night by passing the bill in a 77-40 vote along party lines.
Sen. Travis Hutson, a St. Augustine Republican who sponsored the changes that were adopted by the House and Senate on Thursday, argued that Floridians have a variety of ways to cast ballots.
"It's easier now than it's ever been. You have vote by mail. You got early (voting). You got the drop box and you got in-person (voting). And 20 to 30 years ago, you did not have this many opportunities," he said. "I believe that every legal vote should count. I believe one fraudulent vote is one too many. And I'm trying to protect the sanctity of our elections."
But Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, called the voting restrictions "particularly insulting," given the state's "sordid" history of imposing barriers to the ballot box for people of color.
"Jim Crow. Poll tax. Literacy tests. We even used lynching as a barrier for what, just to stop some people from voting," Thurston, who is Black, said.
Black lawmakers also blasted the bill in the House.
"People like me have been relegated to the back of the bus, not allowed to participate in our democracy, and you want me to sit here calmly and accept that this is something that's going to be good for the electorate," Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, said, calling it a "shameful day" for the House. "You can't gaslight me and tell me you turned the lights down but tell me it's highly illuminated and it's not dim in here. … Jim Crow today wears a suit, carries a briefcase and is now James Crow, Esquire."
Rep. Tracie Davis, a Jacksonville Democrat who is a former deputy supervisor of elections in Duval County, called the elections overhaul "an insult" to Democrats.
"This is an insult to me personally and this is an insult to the millions of voters that depend on us to make decisions for them… so do not pat yourself on the back and think that you have accomplished something here today," Davis, who is Black, said.
While House and Senate Republican leaders backed down significantly from earlier versions of the package, Democrats, voting-rights advocates and elections supervisors have maintained throughout the legislative session that provisions in the proposal are unnecessary. The changes would make it more cumbersome for voters and elections officials, critics said.
Republicans acknowledged that the state's elections ran without a hitch last year but contended that additional "guardrails" are necessary to enhance security and prevent voter fraud.
Former President Donald Trump and his allies repeatedly and falsely have blamed "rigged" and fraudulent elections for Democrat Joe Biden's victory in November. Local, state and federal officials have emphasized that no evidence exists of widespread fraud in the election.
The plan on its way to DeSantis, who will be on the ballot next year as he seeks a second term as governor, addresses myriad issues, including the use of drop boxes for mail-in ballots. Drop boxes became a flashpoint last year, as elections officials wrangled with DeSantis' administration over the location of the boxes and whether they needed to be manned at all times.
The bill would allow supervisors to use drop boxes at early voting sites and "permanent" branch offices, so long as the boxes are staffed by their employees. An initial Senate version of the bill would have banned drop boxes altogether. Also, an earlier House version would have required voters to show identification, such as driver's licenses, to submit mail-in ballots at drop boxes and provide written "attestations" when dropping off other people's ballots.
The measure approved Thursday includes a poison pill for some Democrats, by changing the state's resign-to-run laws. The proposal would allow DeSantis to appoint replacements for elected officials who resign to run for other offices, instead of holding special elections. The provision appears pointed at officials in Broward County who have announced they intend to step down and run to replace the late Congressman Alcee Hastings.
Giving the Republican governor the authority to appoint local officials' replacements "is an attempt to create a monarchy," Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, argued Thursday.
"There is no reason to now create a king in Tallahassee that decides who's going to represent people in our cities and counties. It's really not necessary for us to do that," she said. "There's no reason whatsoever that we should deter people from voting and making it much more difficult. History has already shown us what that looks like. And I don't think we want to repeat that history again."
(©2021 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Dara Kam contributed to this report.)
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