By Tami Abdollah, USA Today | November 3, 2022
Florida voters are already turning out to vote in large numbers this midterm election as they decide whether to return Republican Ron DeSantis or Democrat Charlie Crist to the Governor's Mansion amid a slew of new, complex laws that limit many voters from easily accessing the polls in this swing state.
Also being decided is whether to keep Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio or replace him with U.S. Rep. Val Demings, his Democratic challenger.
While former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, Trump won in Florida by roughly 3 percentage points. At the time, DeSantis touted the state's handling of 11 million ballots, but he quickly shifted tone afterward. He since signed new laws that have created an Election Crimes and Security investigative force, made it harder to vote by mail, limited the number and hours of ballot drop boxes, and prohibited serving food and water to voters waiting in line.
On Tuesday, a week before the election, President Joe Biden visited the state to rally Democrats and support both Crist and Demings. "I'm excited for him to come here," Crist previously told CNN.
Here are more key points on voter rights in Florida that you need to know:
The latest: Arrests of 20 voters
In 2018, Floridians voted overwhelmingly to restore voting rights to most individuals with felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sex offense. Shortly afterward, the state Legislature approved an additional law that layered another requirement on that restoration, requiring these people to ensure any associated legal financial obligations related to their conviction was first paid off, before they could vote again.
DeSantis' election crimes unit has arrested 20 individuals with felony convictions that authorities say broke election laws by voting in 2020 when they were not technically allowed to vote. The arrests were captured on police body camera footage and publicized by the Tampa Bay Times roughly three weeks before the midterm election. They showed the three arrested individuals expressed shock on camera and told the arresting officers they had done nothing wrong; the arresting officers weren't able to explain why they were arresting them.
Crist called the arrests and felony prosecutions voter intimidation aimed at ensuring formerly incarcerated people don't risk voting. Other critics say that the state had an obligation to provide proper information and not OK their voter registration forms if there was a problem.
Voting rights, ballot access in Florida
Florida's Legislature has passed laws making it harder to vote in the last two sessions by, for example, increasing ID requirements to request mail-in ballots. People must provide one of three forms of ID to request their ballot, either a drivers license, state ID or the last four digits of their Social Security number. The ID must match whichever ID initially was used when a person first registered to vote.
Drop boxes must be at locations that could be used as early voting sites, and supervised (a camera does not count). As a result, a number of drop boxes have been uprooted and placed indoors where a paid employee can watch the box during working hours, thereby reducing hours and availability of their use especially for people who don't work regular hours, work shifts, or are disabled and have trouble with mobility.
People can only drop off ballots for two non-family members and only certain family members, including children, parents, spouses and grandparents, but not cousins or further relations. Doing otherwise is a felony. The change ensures that larger organizations or churches, synagogues and the like aren't doing mass drop-offs of ballots.
Community groups or entities conducting voter registration drives can be fined for sending paperwork to the wrong county office – it must be sent to the county in which the person resides – and the cap on total fines for such mistakes by these third-party groups has increased to $50,000 annually.
Line warming, or providing food and water to people waiting in line to vote, is essentially prohibited by a new criminal provision. Longer lines tend to occur in communities of color and lower-income communities, ultimately impacting them disproportionately.
Two ongoing legal cases over recent changes to state legislative redistricting and the bill known as SB 90, which limits drop boxes and line warming, are essentially on pause due to a legal doctrine known as the Purcell principle that counsels courts not to change election rules as an election approaches. As a result, despite a federal judge finding a law imposing limitations on drop boxes and line warming was "intentionally discriminatory" against Black Floridians and a congressional redistricting map pushed by DeSantis that favors Republicans at the expense of Black Democrats should be redrawn, such recent changes remain in effect for the midterm.
DeSantis loosened certain restrictions on election officials in three Florida counties most severely impacted by Hurricane Ian. The executive order applies to Lee, Charlotte and Sarasota counties, and enables extending early voting in more locations; making it easier to have a mail-in ballot sent to a different address; allowing officials to move or consolidate polling locations; and expanding the pool of eligible poll workers. All three counties are GOP strongholds.
What's about to happen
Early voting began in most counties on Oct. 24, and turnout is predicted to be higher than typical for a midterm election. DeSantis and Crist faced off in their only debate on the first day of early in-person voting.
Crist zeroed in on issues of abortion and criticized DeSantis' response to Hurricane Ian during the debate. Crist called Florida's 15-week ban on abortions "callous and barbaric" because it doesn't include exceptions for rape and incest. But DeSantis said, "I'm proud of the 15 weeks" limit.
Still, Crist's performance did not appear to move the needle in recent polling. Two days after the debate, DeSantis widened an 8-point lead to a 10-point lead over Crist in a national average of polls, as well as in all other recent surveys, according to FiveThirtyEight. Those numbers tightened somewhat in the week leading up to the election.
Meanwhile, a poll released Oct. 26 by the University of North Florida's Public Opinion Research Lab found DeSantis ahead of Crist by 14 percentage points, 55% to 41%. Fewer than 1% surveyed said they would vote for someone else while 4% were undecided or didn't answer.
For the U.S. Senate race, the poll found Rubio was 11% percentage points ahead of Demings, 54% to 43% with only 3% undecided or refusing to answer.
Why it matters
DeSantis, who is widely viewed as a 2024 presidential contender, has embraced Trump's false claim that the 2020 election was stolen. That's despite the fact that more than 60 courts, including Trump-appointed judges, found no evidence to support such claims.
While Trump did not claim to find voter fraud in Florida, DeSantis still created an election crimes and security force earlier this year that some voter rights groups have worried is being used as a political tool by the incumbent governor.
Analysts say the swing state appears to have turned deeper red, amid pandemic-era population shifts, and Republican candidates who appear to be growing double-digit leads heading into the midterms.
Up until the pandemic, Republicans historically were more likely to vote by mail in Florida. And there's a small possibility that increasing limitations on absentee ballots in a state with a high number of older retirees may be short-sighted of the GOP. But so far, Republican turnout has mostly dwarfed Democratic turnout, even in traditionally bluer strongholds where Democrats have high numbers of voters, like Miami-Dade County.
The state's change in election rules and regulations in just the last two years and the multiple ongoing legal battles could make it more difficult for voters to know exactly what is or isn't permitted on Election Day.
Voting rights groups have produced guides to help voters and set up numerous hotlines to help those worried about their ability to vote or facing any issues on Election Day.
What they are saying
"A part of the problem with all these laws is that they are not clear and that the state has done very little to educate voters on their requirements," said Michelle Kanter Cohen, policy director and senior counsel for Fair Elections Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on voting rights and election administration.
"There's a lot of research bout the concept of cost of voting, not just monetary cost, but cost in time, voters who have less access to resources, especially time, especially low wealth voters and voters of color, are disproportionately affected by what seem like small barriers to the vote," said Ryan Snow, counsel for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "These combined with the lack of access to resources, can have the effect of disenfranchising voters."
"Even though the polls are showing that Gov. DeSantis is ahead and he has a very large lead, it’s difficult to determine who's going to win because I think if the constituents who support Charlie Crist turnout, there’s a chance he can win it," said Sharon W. Austin, professor of political science at University of Florida who specializes in American elections and voting behavior. "Voter suppression is an important issue in Florida simply because even if it’s a close election, just a few votes might determine the outcome."
"The rules apply equally to everyone. Even as neighborhoods and things change, rigging an election is pretty difficult in Florida and I don't think anybody is doing it," said Kevin Cooper, a Republican activist from Aventura, in Miami-Dade County, who serves as the campaign director for the Miami Republican Party. "There's so much accessibility that it really ends up being easy. It's just a turnout game. You could spin that and say Democrats don’t have access to the polls. But even in areas where they do have access to the polls they’re not turning out. It's an issue of interest not an issue of accessibility."
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