New Voting Rules Prompt Workarounds in Sarasota, Manatee

Critics of SB 7050 say the new law creates unnecessary hurdles for voters, including increasing penalties for clerical errors made by third-party voter registration groups and forcing voters who want to vote by mail to reapply before every election.

By Jim DeLa/Community News Collaborative September 18, 2023

New voting rules passed by the Florida Legislature in the spring are causing concerns from nonprofit groups, as well as local elections officials, as they prepare for balloting in 2024.

Critics say the new law creates unnecessary hurdles for voters, including increasing penalties for clerical errors made by third-party voter registration groups, and forcing voters who want to vote by mail to reapply before every general-election cycle.

Third-Party Registration Rules Are Changing 

Senate Bill 7050 was signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this year. The bill's supporters say many of the new restrictions are designed to prevent voter fraud. But nonprofit groups, including the League of Women Voters, say it's a thinly veiled attempt to put them out of business.

"I think it is classic voter suppression," says Shawn Bartelt, president of the League's Sarasota chapter.

The new rules make it harder for third-party groups like the league to conduct registration drives. Among the changes, it requires every organization to re-register with the state for every election cycle.

It also forbids organizations from prefilling information on registration applications, shortens the time groups have to return applications to the state and increases fines if they miss those deadlines.

It bars non-U.S. citizens from handling voter registration applications and increases the total amount of fines the state can levy against a group from $50,000 to $250,000 per year.

"The state is looking to target people who are out in the community helping voters have access to voting," Bartelt says. "I just don't understand why things have come to that point."

The League of Women Voters has joined lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, Dēmos, the Florida NAACP and others to block enforcement of the new law.

The federal judge in the case temporarily blocked enforcement of portions of the law, including the provision that bars non-citizens from helping to register voters, and a prohibition on keeping a voter’s personal information, such as their name and phone number, even with the voter’s consent.

To get around the new restrictions, the league has announced a new procedure.

At any voter registration event, volunteers are now armed with laptop computers, tablets and smart phones. Connecting to the state's voter registration site by Wi-Fi, citizens will, with volunteers' help, complete their own registration, which usually only takes a matter of minutes.

The League will also have blank voter registration forms available for those not wishing to go online. The League will provide a blank, stamped envelope that the citizens can use to mail the form to the proper office.

"We cannot take that envelope. We cannot turn that i to the county," Bartelt says. "Once we hand it to them, it's theirs and they have to mail it in or deliver it."

Bartelt says the League is committed to its mission. "We are going to be out there with our tablets. We're going to be out there with our mobile devices. We're going to be out there with our paper ballots, and we're going to make sure that we enable citizens to overcome whatever obstacles are there and help safeguard democracy," she says.

Law Affects Vote-by-Mail Requests, Too 

Another provision is prompting county election officials to alert voters to changes in the vote-by-mail process.

Before SB 7050 took effect, any request made by a voter for a mail-in ballot was good for two years. The new law cancels all existing requests in Florida and requires a voter who wishes to vote by mail to submit a new request before every general election cycle.

In Manatee County in 2022, more than 100,000 people voted by mail. Elections supervisor Mike Bennett says his office has basically had to start over.

“We went from more than 100,000 voters having a request on record for a mail ballot to zero,” Bennett says. "Now we only have about 7,800 or 7,900 people [who have reapplied]. We're really concerned about it."

Bennett says since there are no local elections in Manatee County this fall, many people simply haven't gotten around to dealing with re-registering. "I don't know that people are thinking about the elections," he said. "They hear all the [political] advertising, but don't think about their own personal voting."

His office has begun an outreach campaign to inform voters of changes in the law.

The numbers are a little better in Sarasota County, which had similar numbers of mail-in ballots in 2022. With a Venice city commission election coming up in November, Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner says his office had to get the word out early, and it paid off.

"We sent a mailing out and more than 60 percent responded to that mail," he says. "And we've gotten a few thousand outside of that. We're at about 70 percent of where we were in 2022."

Turner says his office begins to send out mail-in ballots more than a month before an election. "We mail ballots to overseas and military voters 45 days before an election. Then we begin mailing domestic mail ballots out about 40 days before," he says.

Bennett is a proponent of mail-in ballots. He credits voting by mail and early voting for streamlining voters’ experience at the polls on Election Day. "We really don't have any lines anymore," he says.

He adds that a mail-in ballot is an insurance policy of sorts. "All of a sudden, you planned on going voting this morning, and lo and behold, you were sick—but you had that vote-by-mail ballot," he says, "All of a sudden you got called up north [for work]. You could have gotten it in the mail."

While a voter can request a mail-in ballot as late as 12 days before Election Day, both Turner and Bennett are telling citizens not to wait.

"We're hoping that people realize now's the time to pick up the phone and call my office," Bennett says. Now's the time to fill out the paperwork."

Adds Turner, "Voters really should be planning ahead, making a plan for 2024." 

Jim DeLa is a reporter for the Community News Collaborative. Reach him at [email protected]

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