TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House on Friday gave final approval to a major elections bill that would place additional restrictions on voter-registration groups and help clear the way for Gov. Ron DeSantis to potentially run for president in 2024.
The bill, which DeSantis is expected to sign, reignited a debate that has repeatedly divided lawmakers since the 2020 election, with Republicans arguing the state needs to continue revamping elections laws to prevent wrongdoing and Democrats saying the changes are designed to suppress voting.
“There is no more sacred thing than our vote, and in this state, when it comes to our elections, we want to be crystal clear: It should be easy to vote and hard to cheat,” Rep. John Snyder, R-Stuart, said before the GOP-controlled House voted 76-34 along straight party lines to pass the bill.
But Democrats said additional restrictions on voter-registration groups would make it harder for people to sign up to vote — and particularly would affect minority voters, who rely more heavily on the groups than white voters.
“This bill is voter suppression through and through,” Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, said.
Democrats also criticized part of the bill that would change what is known as the state’s “resign-to-run” law to help clear the way for a potential DeSantis presidential bid.
The law says any state officeholder who “qualifies for federal public office must resign from the office he or she presently holds if the terms, or any part thereof, run concurrently with each other.” But the bill would exempt candidates for president or vice president from the law, effectively allowing DeSantis to avoid having to submit his resignation if he runs for president.
Democrats said the Legislature should not make an exception to the law to help DeSantis. As an example, some state lawmakers in the past have needed to submit their resignations to run in special elections for congressional seats.
“If you’re going to do it (change the law), you should really consider at least evening the playing field for others, not selectively carving it out for one man,” Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said. “I don’t wait for one man. I’m not going to change a law for one man.”
But Rep. Michelle Salzman, a Pensacola Republican who is a House sponsor of the bill, said it would clear up “ambiguity” in the resign-to-run law. She said candidates for president and vice president, unlike other offices, don’t have a clear qualifying period as they are nominated by their national parties.
Rep. Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island, said he hopes the bill will help make “a path forward maybe a little bit more clear” as DeSantis decides whether to run for president.
“I can’t think of a better training ground than the state of Florida for a future potential commander in chief,” Sirois said.
Florida held relatively smooth elections in 2020 and 2022. But Republican leaders in Florida and across the country have repeatedly pushed to make voting changes after former President Donald Trump’s loss in 2020.
Friday’s vote came a day after a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld most of a 2021 Florida elections law that drew constitutional challenges. The appeals court rejected a federal district judge’s ruling that the law was intended to discriminate against Black voters.
The Senate voted 28-12 on Wednesday to pass this year’s bill (SB 7050).
Much of the debate about the bill has centered on changes related to “third-party” voter registration groups, including increasing fines if the groups violate state laws. Also, the bill would prevent non-U.S. citizens from “handling” voter-registration applications for the groups.
Democrats said that part of the bill would be discriminatory.
“It’s purely designed to intimidate third-party voter (registration) organizations, many who are scrappy, many who have small budgets, many who are volunteer-driven,” Eskamani said. “You’re basically going to create an environment where they have to do background checks.”
But Rep. Lawrence McClure, a Dover Republican who is another sponsor of the bill, said non-U.S. citizens would still be able to take part in voter-registration efforts, though they wouldn’t be able to handle applications.
McClure said the bill’s proposed changes related to voter-registration organizations are designed to protect information submitted by voters.
“We are putting a priority on that voter’s personal information,” McClure said. “It should be the most sacred part of the entire interaction.”
Among other things, the bill would:
— Require that voter-registration groups provide receipts when they collect applications from people.
— Shorten from 14 to 10 days the length of time groups have to turn applications in to elections supervisors and impose a $50-per-day fine for each application that is turned in late.
— Ease campaign-finance reporting requirements for candidates and political committees. Under current law, candidates and committees have to file monthly reports during off-election years and until shortly after the campaign-qualifying period in election years. They have to file more-frequent reports closer to elections. Under the bill, they would be able to file reports quarterly until qualifying time. At that point, they would resume the current reporting schedule.