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Democratic leaders rally for voting rights outside Florida State Capitol

Valerie Crowder
Democratic Rep. Al Lawson (District-5) joined state and local lawmakers and civil rights advocates in calling for an end to GOP-led efforts to restricting voting in Florida on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022.

Standing on the steps of the Florida State Capitol museum, Democratic lawmakers railed against GOP-led efforts to make voting harder in the Sunshine State.

“The purpose of these laws is to undermine democracy. If you only like democracy when it works for you, you do not believe in democracy," said Rep. Michael Grieco (D-Miami Beach) who was among several state lawmakers speaking at the rally. "We have been on the wrong side of a bunch of elections — but we still believe in democracy.”

Last year, Republican lawmakers enacted changes to the state's elections laws — SB 90 — that make voting by mail more difficult, restrict access to ballot drop boxes and force voter registration groups to issue a disclaimer stating that their forms might not get filed with local elections offices, even though the law requires those groups to deliver the forms.

Grieco says those changes belong in the State Capitol museum with voter suppression laws from the 1960s. "They should be in a museum," he said. "We're having a flashback into history."

Valerie Crowder
Voting rights advocates rally against proposed changes to the state's elections laws in front of the Florida State Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022.

Rep. Yvonne Hinson (D-Gainesville) also spoke at the rally. Hinson is sponsoring a measure that would repeal SB90, but it hasn't received a vote in committee. "I hope you'll check it out and start writing legislators about passing it."

The changes to the state's voting laws were also the subject of a federal trial that concluded this week. The judge hasn't yet issued a ruling.

Democrats blasted Republicans for passing voting restrictions, even though the party's leaders touted the state's handling of the 2020 elections. "Here we are again with this governor dismantling our election system again after he said it was the gold standard of elections," said Rep. Tracie Davis (D-Jacksonville) who's a former elections official.

This year, the legislature is advancing additional changes to the state's elections laws in an effort to increase security. New absentee voting requirements under consideration would force voters to enclose their ballot in three envelopes — instead of two — and include the last four digits of their personal identification number, which is already on file.

"The proposed changes increase the likelihood of rejected vote-by-mail ballots," Davis said.

"Are we going to let him get away with that?" Davis shouted, urging the crowd to make their voices heard in November and help shift the state's balance of power. "No," the crowd shouted back. "Are we going to win these elections coming up?" Davis cried. "Yes," rally-goers replied in unison.

Another provision in the proposed changes would require elections supervisors to scrub the voter rolls every year.

Lawmakers are also working to establish an elections police force within the Florida Department of State, which is already in charge of investigating attempted voter fraud.

Sen. Annette Taddeo (D-Miami) is the vice chair of the chamber's Ethics and Elections Committee. She voted against the measure, which is now in the Senate Appropriations Committee. "The amount of red flags in it are outrageous," she said. "It doesn't even define the term election irregularities, and yet it establishes an elections' police and makes it harder to vote by mail."

When the committee took up the proposal earlier this month, one elections supervisor described it as a "recipe for disaster," referring to the proposed absentee voting requirements. They argued many voters make errors and forcing them to take extra steps could result in ballots not getting counted.

If DeSantis signs the package into law, then it would take effect ahead of the 2022 elections. By the end of last month, the number of Republicans in the state exceeded the number of Democrats by 67,475, state elections' records show. There were 3,836,401 independent voters. And 254,468 voters registered with a third party.

Even though Democrats now trail Republicans in voter registration numbers, lawmakers at the rally expressed confidence that they could turn out enough voters to defeat DeSantis and knock off some Republicans in the legislature.

“We are going to turn our state blue, not because we need a Democrat in the governor’s office, but we need decency," said state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who's also seeking the Democratic Party's nomination for governor. "We need compassion."

Redistricting also came up during the rally. Democrats blasted DeSantis' proposed congressional map — which would eliminate Rep. Al Lawson's district, north Florida's only African American opportunity district. U.S. Census data shows that Black voters make up 44% of the constituency in the state's 5th Congressional District, giving them enough power to elect a candidate of their choice.

"It's not about me," Lawson said. "It's about those who come behind me and have the opportunity to represent minority interests in the state of Florida."