A bill that would impose a number of new restrictions on voting in Florida was passed Tuesday by a key Senate committee after heated debate among senators and hours of public testimony against the move. The vote set the stage for a possible vote in the Republican-controlled chamber in the coming weeks.
The bill, known as S.B. 90, had been clear revised last week by Dennis K. Baxley, the Republican Senator who introduced it to overturn some of the tougher restrictions in the original bill, like banning dropboxes. It passed the Senate committee on Tuesday in a largely partisan vote, with a Republican member of the committee, Jeff Brandes, voting against.
The measure also prevents outside groups from giving water to voters within 150 feet of a voting site. adds more identification requirements for postal voting; calls on voters to request a postal vote each time they vote instead of being on a postal ballot list; limits who can collect and submit ballot papers; and enables partisan observers during the voting process.
Mr. Baxley said at the introduction of the law that the election in Florida last year was the “gold standard” for the country, but that the new electoral law was necessary to avoid potential problems.
But the successful Florida elections were the reason Democrats, as well as at least one Republican, pushed back many provisions of the law. The newly amended bill that has been passed limits the availability of Dropboxes to early voting hours rather than the 24-hour option that existed last year.
Democratic senators, including Randolph Bracy, noted that there had been no evidence of tampering with Dropboxes, which was later confirmed by statements from local election officials.
Mr. Baxley simply replied that “things could happen”.
The Republican sponsor relied on a provision: it required a “wet signature” (one handwritten in pen or pencil) for voters who mail their ballots to match signatures, rather than digital signatures, many of which are collected in the department are used by motor vehicle offices across the state.
After intense debate and pressure, including from Republican Senators, Mr Baxley said Tuesday morning, “By listening to others and understanding your heart, I am ready, and this Senate is ready to take it out.”
The bill was originally scheduled for a vote last Wednesday, but the debate ran out of time and ended abruptly. The Senate Committee started the closing debate early Tuesday.
During the public testimony last week, dozens of Florida voters spoke out against the bill, as did some local election officials who were particularly concerned with the provision that gave partisan election observers more authority.
Mr Brandes noted in his closing remarks on Tuesday morning that election officials across the state had opposed the bill.
“I must state that, to my knowledge, not a single Republican election officer in the state of Florida supports this bill in its current form,” he said.
The lengthy debate last Wednesday became heated at times as Democrats became frustrated with what they saw as evasive responses from Mr Baxley.
“These are the most nonsensical, wrong answers I have ever heard to questions in my life,” said Gary Farmer, leader of the Democratic Minority in the Senate.
The bill passed by the committee on Tuesday brings the Senate’s efforts more in line with a similar bill that Blaise Ingoglia, a Republican representative from the Gulf Coast, tabled in the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives bill, passed in March by a key House committee, is also awaiting a full vote later this month.
Florida legislation is only in session until the end of April this year, so all bills must be passed by both chambers before May 1st.