Florida commemorated Confederate Memorial Day on Monday by moving one step closer to passage of a bill that critics say will disproportionately restrict the ballots of Black voters in the state.
The state is one of five in the country that still officially observes as a holiday the April 26, 1865 surrender at Bennett Place, North Carolina, of the last large field army of the Confederate forces that fought to destroy the United States and maintain slavery. This year, Florida marked the occasion with passage in the state Senate of a controversial measure that would restrict mail-in ballots and drop box hours, make it illegal to give water to voters in line, and allow partisan poll observers to object to votes during the ballot count.
Voting advocates in Florida have noted that these measures are likely to disproportionately affect the votes of the elderly, minority voters, and disabled voters.
“The people who are the descendants of the people of who were affected by Jim Crow, they know that during that time the people didn’t say that these Jim Crow laws are designed to keep you in place,” state Sen. Perry Thurston of Broward County said during a committee hearing to consider the legislation last week. “They didn’t say these Jim Crow laws are designed to stop you from voting. Nobody came out and said poll taxes are designed to do this. When you look at that history, then you have to say, well, I’m going to analyze this legislation under those lights.”
It’s Florida’s long history of white supremacy—celebrated by Confederate Memorial Day, which state legislators tried and failed to eliminate earlier this year—that voting rights advocates say the measure hearkens back to.
It’s also part of a pattern of Republican state legislatures attempting to restrict the franchise following Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election to Joe Biden, which the outgoing president claimed without evidence was stolen. Trump won Florida, and senior Republican officials in the state have bragged about its election administration in 2020, but that has not stopped them from following the lead of officials in neighboring Georgia with efforts to make it harder to vote in ways that will likely disproportionately affect voters of color.
“Republican state legislatures are falling all over themselves to enact new voting restrictions to please a Trumpian base that believes the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen,” UC-Irvine election law expert and Slate contributor Richard Hasen told me.
Hasen, though, thinks that some of the changes—particularly those that make it harder for elderly voters to cast absentee ballots—could backfire.
“Many of these changes could end up hurting Republicans, both as a matter of PR by becoming the party of voter suppression and making it harder for their own supporters to easily cast a ballot,” Hasen wrote.
Still, given the state’s history, a bigger concern seems to be that such laws will be used to disenfranchise Black voters—or simply to hobble the state’s election administration in the case of a contested election, as Trump supporters sought to do across the country after his 2020 loss. Indeed, Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley, who runs elections in the state capital of Tallahassee, testified last week that the measure allowing election observers to challenge every ballot for which he or she has a “reasonable objection” could result in chaos.
“The number of people we’re talking about that would be allowed to get in and be in very close proximity to the ballot duplication process, I think presents very grave security risks for many offices,” Earley testified. “Some offices will be able to handle this process; very many will not be able to handle this. Creativity is great, but we don’t have the funding to buy new buildings to have the space sufficient to do this, or the technology to be able to set this up so that it can be potentially viewed remotely.”
While some states other than Florida already have similar ballot observer measures, it does not take much imagination to see this new one weaponized against Democratic votes in the future. During Trump’s attempt to undermine the 2020 election results, his would-be ballot observers swarmed counting sites, beating on the doors, convinced—on zero plausible basis—that hundreds of thousands of ballots should be overturned. As Hasen wrote last week in the New York Times, one of the most concerning aspects of the new Republican assault on voting rights is that it specifically targets election administration in ways that we can’t definitively say will be used to undermine the vote, but could be easily be turned in that direction during extremely close elections.
Florida’s bill also emulates some of the worst aspects of Georgia’s controversial package, including a section making it illegal for people who aren’t voting officials or volunteers to give water to those standing in lengthy lines during Election Day. It also limits the hours that ballot drop boxes are open during the early voting period and makes it so that Floridians have to apply for a mail-in ballot every election cycle instead of every four years.
Georgia’s voting measure was met with a fierce public backlash that resulted in public criticism from major corporations and the eventual loss of the MLB All Star Game in Atlanta. It’s unclear whether Florida’s new voting restrictions will meet a similar resistance if they are passed into law in the House and signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, but state Republicans have already gone on the offensive against potential critics. DeSantis has railed at length against corporate critics of Republican measures to restrict the franchise, while Sen. Marco Rubio on Monday published an op-ed in the New York Post criticizing corporations that have issued statements in defense of voting rights, such as Delta Airlines.
The Florida House is considering its own version of the election law. It would be more restrictive than the version just passed by the Senate, adding a provision forcing countless Florida voters to update their signatures on public file. The state legislature has until Friday to complete passage of and reconcile the two bills before the end of its legislative session.