Florida Republicans want to impose new voting restrictions. They’re not the only ones.

By Cameron Peters

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference about the opening of a Covid-19 vaccination site on January 6.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In the 2020 presidential election, more Floridians than ever before voted by mail. Now, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to make voting by mail more difficult.

At a news conference in Palm Beach on Friday, DeSantis, a Republican, announced a proposed slate of new voting restrictions that would make it more difficult for voters to receive and return mail-in ballots in future Florida elections.

In doing so, he joined a wave of state and local officials who have worked in the months since the 2020 general election to introduce new voting restrictions, arguing these policies will make voting more secure.

Specifically, DeSantis called on the Florida legislature to address “ballot harvesting” (when mail-in ballots are collected for delivery at a drop-off location) and ballot drop boxes, to ban mailing out ballots to voters who haven’t requested one, and to tighten the rules around requesting a ballot so that requests must be made every election year.

Currently, a request for a vote-by-mail ballot is valid for two general election cycles, according to the Florida ACLU; DeSantis’s proposed change would mean that voters have to do so more frequently, potentially raising the logistical barriers to voting by mail.

DeSantis also lauded Florida’s voting system in his speech, arguing the state had the most “transparent and efficient election anywhere in the country,” and pointing out that Florida — which went for former President Donald Trump in November — counted ballots far more quickly than some states. But he claimed the new measures are necessary in order to ensure election integrity.

“We need to make sure that we continue to stay ahead of the curve,” DeSantis said Friday. “We need to make sure that our citizens have confidence in the elections.”

It’s unclear, however, whether his proposed changes, if passed into law, would do much to aid those goals.

Many of the policies DeSantis proposed are essentially already in place in his state: Florida does not currently permit the mass mailing of unrequested vote-by-mail ballots, and the state also has substantial restrictions on “ballot harvesting” already in place, something which DeSantis admitted in his speech.

“We’re not a big ballot-harvesting state as it is,” he said. “But any type of loopholes, or any type of room where that could be abused, we want to make sure that we address it.”

Trump has previously attacked ballot harvesting as “rampant with fraud,” which it isn’t, and the practice is a frequent Republican hobbyhorse. According to NPR, however, Trump himself had his Florida vote-by-mail ballot submitted by a third party in 2020.

DeSantis also suggested Friday that Florida might need to find ways to tighten its existing signature match law, which requires the signature on an absentee or vote-by-mail ballot to match the voter signature already on file.

“If there needs to be ways to bolster the signature verification,” DeSantis said, “then we need to do that as well.”

Signature verification laws, however, can be problematic: Signature mismatches can be highly subjective, as the Atlantic’s David Graham reported last year, and voters of color, among other demographics, often have their ballots rejected at a far higher rate than white voters.

“Fraud is exceedingly rare,” Graham points out. “The much greater danger is that legitimate ballots will be thrown out.”

Overall, Florida’s 2020 election — like the elections held by all other states — proceeded without any unusual irregularities or sweeping fraud; it is unclear how DeSantis’s proposals would improve on the current system.

It is clear, however, that they fit squarely with a national trend in the aftermath of the 2020 election cycle: After losing control of not just the presidency, but the Senate, Republicans across the country are moving to make voting more difficult.

The Republican solution to losing an election is to make it harder to vote

In the months since the presidential election, Republicans state legislatures have leaned into Trump’s baseless election fraud rhetoric and moved quickly to impose new voting restriction.

Specifically, according to a February report from the Brennan Center for Justice, “Thirty-three states have introduced, prefiled, or carried over 165 restrictive bills this year (as compared to 35 such bills in fifteen states on February 3, 2020).”

Some of those bills, such as a measure in Georgia that would end early voting on Sundays, unabashedly target Black voters, who played a major role in Democrats claiming control of the Senate. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution explained Friday, the change “would be a blow to Black churches that host ‘Souls to the Polls’ get-out-the-vote events” on Sunday, in which parishioners are transported by church leaders to polling places after services.

Others, such as a Republican-backed bill in Arizona that would require all vote-by-mail ballots to be notarized, would make it harder for anyone to cast an absentee ballot.

Many of the states where Republicans are pushing new voter restrictions, including Arizona and Georgia, will be sites of competitive Senate races in 2022.

Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly will be seeking a full six-year term in 2022 after winning a special election in 2020, as will Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, who won his seat in a special election runoff in January this year.

And Republicans will be defending seats in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Iowa — all three states where Republicans have moved to implement new voter restrictions — as well as Florida, where Sen. Marco Rubio will be up for reelection.

Despite the flurry of new bills, however, it’s not a sure thing that Republicans will succeed in passing new voter restrictions into law. In some states, such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Democratic governors could veto any such changes.

And even in Georgia, where Republicans control the governor’s mansion as well as the legislature, one anonymous Republican strategist told the Washington Post that such measures could backfire. “There’s still an appetite from a lot of Republicans to do stuff like this, but it’s not bright,” he said. “It just gives Democrats a baseball bat with which to beat us.”

At the national level, Democrats also have their own plan to expand voting rights and protect voters: the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which is named for the late civil rights activist who represented a Georgia district in the House until his death last year.

According to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the bill would restore major swaths of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — portions of which were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 — in order to “protect all Americans’ right to vote.”

There’s also the For The People Act, which was reintroduced on the first day of the new Congress in 2021. If passed, the bill would expand early and mail-in voting, make it easier to register to vote, and put an end to partisan gerrymandering, among other changes.

“You know that our work is far from finished,” Lewis said in 2019. “It makes me sad. It makes me feel like crying when people are denied the right to vote. We all know that this is not a Democratic or Republican issue: It’s an American one.”