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Florida passes voting law that includes restrictions on vote-by-mail and drop boxes

Democratic state Rep. Omari Hardy blasted the legislation as "the revival of Jim Crow" in Florida.
Image: Florida election
An election worker stamps a vote-by-mail ballot before placing it in an official ballot drop box at the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections in Doral, Fla., on Oct. 26.Lynne Sladky / AP file

Florida's Legislature passed an election bill Thursday that includes restrictions on drop boxes and voting by mail over the concerns of Democrats and voting rights activists that the restrictions would amount to voter suppression.

Both the House and the Senate passed the bill Thursday after weeks of negotiations between Republicans in both bodies. The bill is poised to be signed into law by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has already blessed efforts to enact restrictions along these lines.

The bill passed the Senate 23-17 and the House 77-40.

The legislation would make a slew of changes to the state's election laws.

While an earlier proposal would have banned the use of ballot drop boxes outright, the new legislation would allow their use as long as election officials follow new constraints — limits on who could drop off voters' ballots at drop boxes, a ban on moving drop boxes within 30 days of elections, restrictions on where drop boxes could be placed and a requirement that they would all have to be monitored by elections officials whenever they're open.

The bill would also require voters to request to vote by mail more regularly, prohibit election officials from using private money to help pay for election administration, restrict third-party voter registration organizations, add new powers for partisan election observers and give DeSantis the leeway to appoint replacements to fill certain local political positions vacated by people running for higher office.

Democrats say the last provision is targeted at local officials looking to run in a special election to replace Democratic U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, whose death left an opening in the Democratic-heavy Miami area. Democratic state Sen. Audrey Gibson said the measure was an "attempt to create a monarchy" by giving the governor more power.

Republicans softened language that would have prohibited handing out any items to voters within 150 feet of polling places, including food and water, except by elections officials.

The legislation would now ban anyone from "engaging in any activity with the intent to influence or effect of influencing a voter" but allow election supervisors to provide "non-partisan assistance," such as giving items to voters within the restricted zones.

During the contentious House debate Wednesday, Democrats blasted the bill as being aimed at restricting minority voters and Democrats, who relied on mail voting mail and drop boxes in significant numbers during the presidential election. And they said it was the fruit of former President Donald Trump's unfounded claims of widespread electoral fraud, arguing that it was aimed at curbing strong Democratic vote-by-mail turnout.

"We are not here because we have a problem with our elections. We are here because the Republican former president lost his re-election in November, and, rather than admitting his defeat, he spun a web of lies, radicalized those lies, in an attempt to explain away the loss," Democratic state Rep. Omari Hardy said.

"This bill is the revival of Jim Crow in this state whether the sponsors admit it or not," Hardy said.

Democrats offered many amendments to water down some of the restrictions, among them to remove the identification requirements, expand who could return someone's ballot to a drop box and allow for drop boxes to be monitored by cameras instead of staff members. All of the Democratic amendments failed.

Republicans bristled at the accusations that they were cutting access, arguing that the state already provides robust avenues for voting and that the measures were meant to protect voters from potential fraud, even as they admitted that the 2020 election went smoothly in the state.

"I take some issue with the fact that we're trying to somehow restrict the vote. There are more ways to vote in Florida and a longer opportunity than just about any state in the nation," Republican state Rep. Ralph Massullo said.

"Fraud will be reduced as much as we can possibly do it with the work we're doing today," he said.

The legislation is one of many measures being introduced in Republican-led legislatures across the country in the wake of Trump's lies about widespread voter fraud. Democrats in the state repeatedly compared the measure to legislation that passed into law this year in Georgia, which prompted significant pushback from outside groups that ultimately led a handful of prominent corporations to condemn the legislation or pull business from the state.

But unlike those in Georgia, top Florida businesses have largely remained quiet despite urging from voting rights activists.

Voting rights groups panned the bill's passage in a raft of statements shortly after the House vote.

"S.B. 90 is a blatant violation of Floridians' freedom to vote and represents a direct backlash to last year's record-breaking turnout," said Brad Ashwell, the director of the Florida branch of All Voting is Local. "By erecting onerous barriers to request and return a vote-by-mail ballot, this legislature has made voting a test of stamina and resources rather than a statement of civic responsibility."