Florida Senate moves closer to approving elections bill

The Florida Senate marched toward approval of a nationally watched elections bill Thursday after hours of debate over the mundane, but high stakes, process of casting a ballot — including who can collect vote-by-mail ballots, when those ballots can be put in drop boxes and whether voters can be given water while waiting to vote.

Florida Republicans have pushed to rewrite elections laws despite touting the state as a national model.

Democrats and voter rights advocates have raised suspicions that the changes were politically motivated to make it more inconvenient for some voters to cast ballots — an assertion disputed by Republicans.

"This is not Georgia 2.0," said Sen. Dennis Baxley, the bill’s Republican sponsor, as he pushed back against critics who have decried the measure as draconian.

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Baxley was alluding to the ongoing backlash over new voting rules in neighboring Georgia, which limit ballot drop boxes, impose tougher ID requirements and prohibit giving food and water to people in line.

"All we're doing in this bill is clarifying that seeking votes, distributing campaign materials and giving, or attempting to give, items to voters is prohibited within 150 feet of polling places," Baxley said, noting that the prohibition would not apply to elections officials.

Separate proposals before Florida’s House and Senate would enact new voter ID and signature requirements, restrict who can return completed ballots and place new rules on ballot drop boxes.

Under the Senate proposals, absentee ballots that are not dropped in the U.S. mail can only be returned in drop boxes when early voting sites and elections offices are open. No longer would drop boxes be available at all hours of the day.

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Baxley tried to reassure fellow lawmakers on Thursday that the effort was meant to preserve the integrity of the state's elections process, particularly in casting mail-in ballots and protecting against potential meddling.

In a concession, he deleted a provision that would have required signatures be matched against signatures signed on paper and would have prevented digital signatures from being used.

Democrats tried to make changes of their own, including prepaid postage for return envelopes for absentee ballots, but those proposals were rejected by the Republican-led chamber.

Of particular concern among Democrats is the proposed limitation on who can collect completed ballots. The proposal specifies that a person can only handle the ballots of close relatives and for no more than two nonrelatives.

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"Whose ballot is it anyway?" asked Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Democrat. "Is there a reason we should restrict a voter from deciding who they want to take their ballot? .. What's the problem?"

The limitation, Republicans contend, is intended to prevent so-called "ballot harvesting," a term used by those wary of groups that sometimes go door-to-door to collect completed absentee ballots. There have been no widespread evidence in Florida of groups collecting ballots for nefarious reasons.