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Florida Republicans prepare to impose another round of election restrictions

<i>Octavio Jones/Getty Images</i><br/>Pinellas County residents go to cast their ballots in November 2022 in St. Petersburg
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Octavio Jones/Getty Images
Pinellas County residents go to cast their ballots in November 2022 in St. Petersburg

By Fredreka Schouten

Florida lawmakers have passed an array of new restrictions on groups that register voters — an action that voting rights experts say could make it harder for people of color in the state to register and participate in future elections.

The measures are part of a sweeping elections bill that now awaits Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature. The 96-page package includes an attention-getting provision that would allow DeSantis to retain his position as governor while seeking the Republican presidential nomination. But SB 7050, which the Republican-led legislature approved last week, contains other changes to state law that could have a long-lasting impact on the operations of voter registration groups.

Additionally, the bill is poised to shift responsibility to individual Floridians to demonstrate their eligibility to cast ballots, after the arrest of 20 convicted felons last year for allegedly voting illegally in the 2020 election. Several defendants have said they thought that voter identification cards sent to them by state officials provided proof that their voting rights had been restored.

Under the proposed change, they will now include disclaimer language, noting that cards are “not legal verification of eligibility to vote.”

Several key provisions, however, focus squarely on third-party voter registration groups.

Among them: one shortening from 14 days to 10 the amount of time these organizations have to turn in any registration forms they collect. The bill imposes daily late fees for each tardy application. The groups also must register with the state each general election cycle, a change from the current one-time registration requirement. They also must provide a receipt to each voter they register.

The bill makes it illegal for people convicted of certain felonies and for non-citizens — including those who have permanent legal residency in the US — to collect or handle voter registration applications. Organizations face fines of up to $50,000 for each ineligible person involved in collecting the applications.

Altogether, groups could be fined as much as $250,000 in total for violations each calendar year.

Abdelilah Shkir, voting rights policy strategist for the ACLU of Florida, noted that the maximum financial penalty voter registration organizations face for violations has skyrocketed in Florida — up from $1,000 annually just two years ago. “That’s going to scare off a lot of people,” he said.

State Sen. Danny Burgess, the Republican chairman of the Senate ethics and elections panel who shepherded the bill through that chamber, described the changes as needed to guard against fraud and attempts at identity theft by people who collect voters’ personal information during the registration process. During Senate floor debate, he claimed three groups in two counties had been caught stealing voter information during the 2022 election cycle.

The steep fines are needed to make “people think twice” before violating the rules, he said.

“This bill does not and will not hinder anyone’s right to vote nor would I ever subscribe my name to something that could ever remotely be concluded to be voter suppression,” Burgess said. “There is nothing in this bill that makes it harder for a lawfully registered voter to cast their ballot.”

“If anything, we are making it harder for bad actors to do bad things,” he added.

Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political scientist and expert on voting, said the restrictions could have a disproportionate impact on non-White Floridians.

In 2021, his research shows, about 1 in 10 Black and Latino voters in the state registered through a third-party group. And Black and Latino voters were five times more likely to register through one of these groups than White residents of the state.

“It is likely that the new legislation will effectively stifle voter registration efforts by non-partisan groups in Florida,” Smith said in an email. “The penalties have become too high, the cost too great, for groups on the ground doing the hard work of registering the thousands of Floridians eligible to vote in the state.”

The new legislation marks the third year in a row that Florida lawmakers have changed the election ground rules in the state — an important presidential battleground that has increasingly favored Republicans. In 2021, the state passed broad legislation that added new limits on requesting and returning mail ballots.

Last year, at DeSantis’ behest, lawmakers established a new state agency to police elections violations. And a separate bill, approved by legislators earlier this year, gave state prosecutors new authority to pursue people for election violations. The change came after some of the cases against the 20 ex-felons charged with election fraud encountered legal problems. In Miami-Dade County, for instance, a judge dismissed charges against one of the defendants on grounds that state prosecutors had acted beyond their authority.

Cecile Scoon — president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, one of the largest third-party voter registration groups in the state — said the latest bill will be “a barrier to voting.”

She said her organization will have to revamp its training and policies to comply, but she said it’s hard to interpret the impact of some of the bill’s language. In one instance, aimed at protecting against identity theft, the bill makes it a felony for “a person” to retain “personal information” about the voter they helped register on behalf of a group.

Some organizations, Scoon said, follow up with the individuals they helped to register to make sure they have received their voter registration cards or actually have cast their ballots. It’s possible that activity could be jeopardized, she said.

Other voter registration organizations say they also will have to study the provisions closely.

Ebony Johnson, who works with two organizations focused mostly on African American families in the Miami Gardens area of South Florida, said she’s going to have to be “creative” to comply with the new provisions once enacted. Her groups usually register — or help check the registration status for — about 150 to 200 people in a typical, two-year election cycle, she said.

But Johnson said she will not stop registering Floridians, no matter the hurdles. “We come across barriers all the time,” she said. “We just learn to jump over them in different ways.”

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