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Florida Election Supervisors Question New Law's Voting Restrictions

Christie Hutcherson.jpg
Steve Bousquet
Christie Hutcherson of Jacksonville was with a group of protesters outside the elections supervisors' conference. The group was protesting the presence of Dominion Voting Systems, a vendor blamed - without evidence - for President Donald Trump's loss last November.

Controversial changes to Florida's voting laws are under attack in the courts and under close examination by county elections officials. Election supervisors are being forced to implement a law they did not support, and that was a key topic at their annual conference that just wrapped up in Tampa.

The gathering was dominated by criticism of Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature for their passage of Senate Bill 90 (SB 90), which imposes new restrictions on voting by mail, the use of drop boxes, and voter registration efforts.

Tensions are high, even after the smoothest statewide election in memory in Florida. County experts remain stunned that lawmakers shattered what used to be a strong working relationship.

"This session was different. It was politically driven," says Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley. "The speed and the massive changes in the middle of the night prevented any good process where we could communicate with a dialogue back and forth to make sure that the statutes, I think, made sense. So now, we've got a lot of really big problems in the statutes for us to get through. Some of the worst aspects were taken out, but there are still these things that disenfranchise voters."

SB 90 is the target of four separate lawsuits in federal courts in Tallahassee. Advocacy groups claim the bill will impose unconstitutional burdens on voters, especially people of color and voters with disabilities. To supervisors, a closer reading of the law's fine print reveals many gaps, and they grilled state officials about that for more than an hour.

The new law restricts the number of ballots a person can drop in a box to immediate family members and two others. But the law does not say how that must be enforced.

"What are we supposed to ask the person?" wondered Julie Marcus, Supervisor of Elections in Pinellas County, as state election leaders listened. "What would you do if you were us, in a training session with ballot drop-off employees? I'm dying to know. I really am."

Facing a torrent of litigation - and with reporters in the room - state officials tiptoed around their answers. "I'm not going to answer a hypothetical question. I told you that at the outset," Bradley McVay, legal counsel for the state Division of Elections, told supervisors. Marcus responded, “Well, that is not hypothetical.”

After a long hiatus because of Covid-19, this conference drew a sellout crowd at a waterfront hotel in downtown Tampa. It also attracted about a dozen peaceful protesters who were there because of the presence of Dominion Voting Systems, a vendor blamed - with no proof - for Donald Trump's loss to Joe Biden in other states.

Protester Christie Hutcherson came from Jacksonville with a group called Women Fighting for America. She complained that she couldn’t get into the conference.

“I think that any time they are getting information, we should be able to have an open forum and it should be discussed openly,” Hutcherson said. “If they don't have anything to hide, then have citizens be able to be there."

The event was open to the news media. The host supervisor, Hillsborough County's Craig Latimer, said the registration maxed out in May and that even some county staffers were turned away.

Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said the conspiracy theories have no basis in fact. "What is being alleged is completely devoid of reality," Corley said, "and nothing you say with fact and refuting it with evidence is going to change their mind, sadly."

The next statewide election is the 2022 primary, about 14 months from now. But the sense of dread over SB 90 was palpable. Secretary of State Laurel Lee shut down the question and answer period after about 90 minutes but said she wants to keep hearing from the counties.

"It's immensely helpful to us at the Department of State to get the kind of feedback you're providing today," Lee said, "the perspective on how this is going to play out in your offices and the types of support that we can be providing for you."

Lee is a named defendant in the pending lawsuits over SB 90. So are the elections supervisors - joined together in another long hot summer of voting controversy in Florida.

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.