The new voting restrictions, signed into law on Thursday, are drawing widespread criticism from Democrats across the US.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has signed a law curtailing access to absentee ballots and adding new hurdles to the process of submitting them, the latest Republican-backed voting restrictions to become law in the United States since the 2020 presidential election.
The new law restricts the use of absentee ballot drop boxes to the early voting period, adds new identification requirements for requesting such ballots and requires voters to reapply for absentee ballots in each new general election cycle. Previously, Florida voters only had to register for an absentee ballot once every two election cycles.
The law also gives partisan election observers more power to raise objections and requires people offering voters assistance to stay at least 45 metres (150 feet) away from polling places, an increase from the previous 30-metre (100 feet) radius.
DeSantis, who signed the bill during an appearance on the conservative Fox News network’s Fox & Friends programme, said: “Me signing this bill says: Florida, your vote counts, your vote is going to be cast with integrity and transparency and this is a great place for democracy.”
— Sherrilyn Ifill (@Sifill_LDF) May 6, 2021
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP), Disability Rights Florida and the government accountability group Common Cause immediately filed a lawsuit challenging the law, which they argued, “violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act”.
The League of Women Voters of Florida also lodged a separate legal challenge.
The legislation “represents a direct and swift backlash to Black voters’ historic turnout during the 2020 election season”, said Zachery Morris, assistant counsel to the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF).
“The law’s suppressive and discriminatory provisions make it clear that the Florida Legislature’s goal is to erect additional hurdles to inhibit Florida voters, especially disabled voters,” Morris said in the Thursday statement. “Black voters, and Latino voters, from accessing the ballot box. These efforts are shameful and they are not new. We cannot allow elected officials to suppress votes under the guise of election integrity.”
Republican legislators in numerous states have pursued measures to restrict voting rights in the aftermath of then-President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him through widespread voting fraud.
In pursuing the new measures, Florida Republican legislators have repeatedly cited the unfounded claims made by Trump, a Florida absentee voter himself, after his decisive loss to Democrat Joe Biden.
Judges rejected such claims in more than 60 lawsuits that failed to overturn the election result. Legislators in Republican-controlled states including Georgia, Texas and Arizona nevertheless proposed legislation that they said was necessary to curb voter fraud, which remains rare in the US.
DeSantis acknowledged in a February press release that Florida had “held the smoothest, most successful election of any state in the country” in November, but said new limits on absentee ballots were needed to safeguard election integrity.
Mail-in ballots or absentee ballots were used by Democratic voters in greater numbers than Republicans in the 2020 election as many people avoided in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic.
While Florida Republicans used mail-in voting slightly more than Democrats in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 general elections, in November, Democrats submitted 2.2 million mail-in ballots compared with 1.5 million from Republican voters, state records show.
The abrupt policy change after the Democratic mail-in voting surge has not gone unnoticed by voting rights advocates.
“Florida’s Republican legislative leaders seem determined to weaken the system that voters have relied on, without significant problems, for the better part of a generation,” Sylvia Albert, voting and elections director for good-government watchdog Common Cause, said in a statement on April 28 after Florida’s House passed the bill.
In March, Georgia’s Republican governor signed a law that tightened absentee ballot identification requirements, restricted ballot drop box use and allowed a Republican-controlled state agency to take over local voting operations.
Democrats and voting rights advocates sued Georgia over the measure, saying it was aimed at disenfranchising Black voters, whose heavy turnout helped propel Biden to the presidency and delivered Democrats two US Senate victories in Georgia in January that gave them control of the chamber.
Top US companies also decried Georgia’s law, and Major League Baseball moved its All-Star game out of the state in protest.