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Florida election laws are changing voting this year

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

More than a million people have already cast their ballots across Florida. While campaigning for reelection, Governor Ron DeSantis has been encouraging people to vote as soon as they can, which is part of a pattern. While supporting early voting while out campaigning, Republican officials have also been making changes to election laws in the Sunshine State that could make it harder for people to vote than it was in 2020. In recent weeks, we've been looking at how changing election laws across a number of key states could shape results in the midterm elections and the next presidential election in 2024. So this week, we're going to take a look at election law changes in Florida. To hear about those, we're joined by NPR political correspondent Ashley Lopez. Ashley, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Yeah, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us is reporter Valerie Crowder from member station WFSU in Tallahassee, Fla. Valerie Crowder, welcome to you as well.

VALERIE CROWDER, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Ashley, let's start with some background. A lot of states made it easier to vote in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Did Florida make changes in 2020? And then, of course, I'm going to ask both of you how it's going to be different this time. So, Ashley, why don't you start?

LOPEZ: Yeah, and I'll kind of just start by giving people just sort of, like, a national lay of the land because I think it's important to remember that a lot of states, including some Republican-led states, during the pandemic tried to make voting, particularly voting by mail, a little easier. And, of course, this varied wildly. Some states made voting by mail easier on the voter side, but some states just allowed election officials to accommodate more mail ballots that were expected to come in. This was before the COVID-19 vaccine, so state officials were preparing for a surge in people voting by mail as a way to stay safe during those times. But, of course, things have changed a lot since the 2020 election. Vote-by-mail has been vilified by both Republican voters and Republican lawmakers, so we're seeing a lot of new limits and rules for vote-by-mail being passed across the country, including in Florida.

MARTIN: So, Valerie, what about you? What about Florida? Did Florida make these kinds of changes?

CROWDER: Well, unlike other states, Michel, Florida didn't make remote voting easier for voters during the pandemic. But DeSantis did make it easier for elections officials to count more mail-in ballots by offering poll worker incentives and allowing counting to begin sooner than usual. However, much like other states, Florida did see a record vote-by-mail turnout in 2020. And overall voter turnout was the highest it's been in about three decades, with 77% of registered voters casting a ballot, and nearly half of those voted by mail. Florida's election security was also widely praised by elected officials at all levels, from county election supervisors all the way up to Governor DeSantis himself.

But still, Republican lawmakers have been busy making changes to the state's voting laws over the last two years and not in ways that make it easier to vote. For instance, lawmakers restricted access to ballot drop boxes. In 2020, most counties allowed voters to return ballots to drop boxes 24/7. But under the new law, drop boxes must be monitored in person by an elections worker, and that restricts the hours voters may use them. And this year, Republican lawmakers created an elections investigations unit among the first of its kind in the nation.

MARTIN: So it sounds like, just from hearing the reporting here, that voter access is being curtailed somewhat in Florida compared to 2020. Valerie, do we have a sense of who this would benefit in this election?

CROWDER: Well, while we don't know who it benefits more, Republicans are embracing the changes more than Democrats. Now, Democrats cast about 700,000 more vote-by-mail ballots than Republicans in 2020. And so restrictions on ballot drop box hours makes it less convenient to return a mail-in ballot. And there are concerns from voting rights advocates that DeSantis' new election crimes investigation unit could intimidate voters, especially Black voters with felony records who recently got their voting rights restored. And because those voters tend to vote Democratic, the new unit could also help Republicans in that way.

MARTIN: You mentioned that election crimes unit. There have been videos released showing Florida police officers arresting people for alleged voting violations. And as you can imagine, you know, this has provoked outrage among a number of civil rights groups and voting rights groups who say this is basically state-sponsored voter intimidation. So, Valerie, can you just tell us, how many people have been arrested? And what's the status of those cases?

CROWDER: Yeah. In August, the state's new Office of Election Crimes and Security arrested 20 people with felony records for alleged voter fraud. Now, they voted in 2020 and didn't find out they weren't eligible until they were recently arrested. People convicted of murder or sex crimes didn't have their rights restored under the 2018 constitutional amendment, unlike others who had felony records. And those arrested in August were allowed to register to vote in 2020. And so the new office has the power to investigate complaints of voter fraud and election irregularities. And those complaints can be made by anyone. There's even a voter fraud hotline that residents can call. However, there aren't any penalties for people who make a false complaint. And every year, the office must submit a report to legislative leaders detailing all complaints and investigations.

And as you mentioned, Michel, critics of the new office, including voting rights groups and Democrats, have said that it could deter some people from voting. Back in March, Leon County Elections Supervisor Mark Earley suggested that the new office could bolster false claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

MARTIN: So, Ashley, let's go back to that national perspective that you were giving us. Will these types of post-election police officers become part of the scene in other places?

LOPEZ: I mean, they're already part of the election scene in some states. So Texas, for example - the attorney general down there, Ken Paxton, has been prosecuting people for alleged voting crimes for several years now. And we don't know a lot about these cases. There's not really a lot of transparency around, you know, that particular office's elections crimes unit. But voting rights groups who have been able to get some information on who's been prosecuted - what they found is that Texas is overwhelmingly prosecuting voters of color - mostly Latino and Black voters. And in some notable cases, the people they've been prosecuting say they made a mistake and thought they were able to vote when they couldn't. You know, very much like what happened in Florida. So we aren't talking about, like, major operations, which is the sort of thing that Republicans say they've been trying to deter with these kinds of laws.

And what we also don't know is really how the courts feel about this. We're getting a little bit of a spotty picture, you know, out of those 20 arrests in Florida that Valerie mentioned. We already had one dismissed by a court because of jurisdictional issues. This is kind of like a new thing that states are starting to do. And in Texas, the - you know, there are also new rules about whether the state can prosecute these voters. It's a kind of new landscape, but some states are moving forward. So Georgia is a good example. Last month, they announced a slew of prosecutions. The state election board there referred 35 cases of what they call election law-related violations to the attorney general, as well as to local district attorneys, for a criminal prosecution. So we're going to find out more about how that's playing out as well.

MARTIN: So Florida is on the front line of the midterm political fight with House seats in play, a Senate seat in play and a governor's race that could be the prelude to a presidential run in two years.

LOPEZ: Right.

MARTIN: So how could these changes affect 2024 presidential elections? Ashley, why don't you start?

LOPEZ: Yeah, well, I mean, Florida's obviously a big state with lots of electoral votes, as well as a lot of congressional seats. And, you know, it's a swing state. Like, really the list is endless as to why Florida is politically important nationally. This year, though, there is a U.S. Senate race, right? Republican Marco Rubio is being challenged by Democrat Val Demings. With the Senate at 50-50, really every Senate race in the country is important to some extent and could tip power over to one party or the other. And the governor's race, as you mention, is politically important because Governor Ron DeSantis is a rising star in the Republican Party right now. Even though the party is still largely behind Donald Trump, a lot of Republican voters have told me they would be really happy to vote for DeSantis for president in 2024 - you know, even voters who like Donald Trump. So DeSantis' political future, which currently hinges - right? - on getting reelected in Florida, has some pretty big national implications.

MARTIN: And so, Valerie, what about you? How might these changes affect the 2024 presidential elections? How do you see it?

CROWDER: There are some things that voters should look out for ahead of the 2024 presidential elections. If you requested a vote-by-mail ballot, for instance, before this law was enacted last year, then you're pretty safe for this election. But going forward, into 2024, you have to request a vote-by-mail ballot more frequently. And under Florida's new law, absentee voters must request a mail-in ballot every two years instead of every four years. And again, that's going to be taking effect going into the 2024 elections. And those ballot requests can even be retroactively canceled, meaning some voters might not realize that they're not automatically receiving a mail-in ballot because of that change to the vote-by-mail laws. And we also should keep in mind that there's ongoing litigation in federal court challenging these changes in Florida. So there is a possibility that parts of the law could be struck down before we even get into 2024.

MARTIN: That was Valerie Crowder. She's a reporter from member station WFSU in Tallahassee, Fla. We also had with us NPR political correspondent Ashley Lopez, who is based in Texas. Thank you both so much for joining us and sharing this reporting with us.

CROWDER: Thank you.

LOPEZ: Yeah, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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