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Conservative Think Tank Pushing For Changes To Florida Election Laws

Close up of hands showing I voted by mail sticker with USA flag as background - Concept of US election, mail-in voting or vote by mail
A bill in the Florida House would restrict the use of drop boxes, require more extensive use of photo IDs by people voting by mail, and make it easier for partisan operatives to challenge voter signatures.

Fresh off its success in Georgia, a conservative think tank aligned with former President Donald Trump is now busy trying to change Florida’s election laws. The Heritage Foundation is pushing what it calls “best practices” for the next statewide vote in 2022.

The Washington-based Heritage Action for America is spending $24 million to change election laws in eight battleground states. The New York Times reports Heritage officials met with Georgia lawmakers in the weeks before that state revamped its voting laws, and now the focus is on Florida.

“Our framing for this is that we want it to be easy to vote, hard to cheat,” says Noah Weinrich, a spokesman for the Heritage Foundation’s partner political organization, Heritage Action. “A lot of the time we want to encourage in-person voting because we believe and the evidence shows that is more secure, less prone to fraud. It simplifies the process.”

A registered lobbyist for Heritage Action for America, Karen Jaroch, is backing the House’s proposed overhaul of Florida election laws. HB 7041 surfaced for the first time last week. It would restrict the use of drop boxes, require more extensive use of photo IDs by people voting by mail, and make it easier for partisan operatives to challenge voter signatures.

Sarasota Sen. Joe Gruters, who’s also chairman of the state Republican Party, confirms he’s had discussions about election law changes with the Heritage Foundation and other like-minded Republican groups “to come up with the best legislation.” Gruters chairs a 24-member committee on election integrity created by the Republican National Committee.

“I want it to be as easy as possible to vote and as hard as possible to cheat,” Gruters says, touting the desire for a secure and transparent voting process. “We don’t want to have any outstanding questions at midnight on Election Day like we had in 2020.”

The changes being pushed by Republican lawmakers have the support of Governor Ron DeSantis, and they all must face the voters next year following the upcoming redrawing of legislative districts.

Lobbyist Ida Eskamani of Florida Rising, a statewide progressive advocacy group, opposes the changes and predicts they will be especially harmful to Black and Brown voters.

“The folks that can’t take a day off of work to go vote, the folks that come off of a long day to go vote, the folks that need a place to drop off their ballot are veterans, are seniors, working people, black and brown folks who’ve faced decades of voter suppression in this country,” Eskamani says. “The things we’ve seen in Georgia should be a major red flag to this state because it is reeking of Jim Crow, and Florida has a dark history of voter suppression, and we do not want to go back.”

Republicans have the votes in the legislature to enact the changes, which are likely to face legal challenges. Supervisors of elections remain strongly opposed to both bills. Supervisor Mark Earley of Leon County calls the case-by-case challenge of signatures “a nightmare; a train wreck.”

Updated: March 30, 2021 at 4:19 PM EDT
Language was changed to reflect that the group Heritage Action for America is spending $24 million and lobbying for the bill. The original version stated it was the Heritage Foundation.
Steve Bousquet has covered state government and politics for three decades at the Sun Sentinel, Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. He was the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief from 2005 to 2018 and has also covered city and county politics in Broward County. He has a master's degree in U.S. history from Florida State.