Last week Senator Baxley (R-Ocala) described his Elections Bill (SB90) by referencing press coverage of Florida’s 2020 election: “Much has been written about our election process.” And, he is correct. Our election process from last cycle did make national news. The coverage came in two stages.
The first wave of press coverage was immediate: Florida was held up as a shining example of a well-run election. We had more people participate than ever before – more than 11 million according to Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee. An unprecedented 4.8 million Floridians voted by mail: 2.1 million Democrats, 1.5 million Republicans, and 1 million NPAs. Yet, our elections ran smoothly and securely.
During a recent meeting of the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee, our own Supervisor of Elections, Julie Marcus, explained, “Florida was a resounding undisputed success. Why? Because Florida did not overhaul the election code or make sweeping changes at the last minute.” She went on to explain that voters had faith in the process, especially vote-by mail (VBM), which is known to be reliable and secure.
The second wave of press coverage came earlier this year, after an FBI investigation and arrest: Frank Artiles, former state legislator and Republican operative, was arrested after an FBI investigation uncovered election fraud. Artiles might have gotten away with this crime but he couldn’t resist bragging about it. He allegedly paid $50,000 to recruit someone with same last name as the incumbent – and then made the mistake of using social media chat (preserved in perpetuity by a third party) to offer the guy money not only to run, but also to change from NPA to Republican. This was made possible by a loophole in election rules: party-affiliated candidates must wait a year before running as a candidate of their new party, while NPAs do not. In other words, NPAs can select a party affiliation the day before they submit their papers to run for office. And this was exactly what was done in South Florida and has been done in other Florida elections.
So which of these two issues deserved immediate attention this session? Clearly it’s the second. Bad actors, like Artiles, threaten our democracy; voting by mail, as done in Florida, expands participation in our democracy. But where are elected officials in Tallahassee devoting attention? They are changing a well-functioning process and, in doing so, sowing unwarranted skepticism about the security of our elections.
At the end of the day, I anticipate that the Elections Bill (SB90) will make no difference in the security of our elections with the exception of Brandes’ thoughtful amendment. It will make it slightly harder for folks to vote: there will be additional hoops to jump through when voting by mail and there will likely be fewer number of secure ballot drop boxes. But, it will be much more expensive to run elections and this could in turn act to subdue voter turnout.
Lake County Election Supervisor Alan Hayes, a former Republican state senator and president of the Florida Association of Supervisors of Elections, estimated that proposed changes would cost his office $14 to 16 million in 2022. Lake County has a population of 367,118 – about one-third of Pinellas. If expenses are proportionate to Lake County, that adds up to $42 to 48 million. That’s money that could be spent increasing the number of secure ballot drop boxes, maintaining the SOE’s voter outreach programs or expanding early polling places, a long-sought priority for many local voting rights advocates.
Pinellas, after all, has significantly fewer early voting polling places than our much less populous neighbor to the north, Polk County. Exactly how counties will cover these rising costs is unclear.
What is clear is that the issues of legitimate concern are not being addressed by the legislature. Instead, the government is meting out the kind of wholesale upturning of our election processes that sow confusion and distrust. In just one bill, Tallahassee further erodes home rule and democracy.
“Our Florida election code works,” Pinellas Supervisor of Election Julie Marcus testified. “We’ve seen it time and time again. Can we make administrative tweaks? Yes. Clarify some areas in law? Yes. But to continue our trajectory of successful elections in Florida, data-driven, evidence-based decisions and a moderated approach to legislating is key.”
Good luck finding that in Tallahassee.
Find contacts and more for your local representatives at pinellascounty.org/delegation.
Jennifer Webb is a former member of the Florida State House, District 69, a founding partner of Omni Public, and an applied anthropologist. She lives in Gulfport with her wife, Cynthia, and their adopted pup, Bailey.