Jurisprudence

The Florida Legislature Does What Disney and Trump Want

A pair of new bills captures the coziness between MAGA and Mickey.

A sign that says "Walt Disney World: Where Dreams Come True" above a four-lane highway with palm trees and a clear blue sky in the background
The happiest place on earth to pay money to supporters of those who suppress the vote. Gregg Newton/AFP via Getty Images

On Thursday evening, the Florida House of Representatives passed a sweeping set of changes to the state’s election laws that would shorten drop box hours, confuse mail-in voters by changing ballot request deadlines, make it illegal for groups to give water to voters standing in line, and empower partisan observers to more easily challenge ballots during the vote counting process. In short, the bill would make it harder to vote, with voting rights groups and Black lawmakers noting that these changes will disproportionately affect minority voters.

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The passage of this bill—with bipartisan opposition but only Republican support—has rightly received major media attention, with newspapers and TV networks noting its similarities to the Georgia voting bill passed last month that caused a national uproar and comparisons to Jim Crow.

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Less remarked upon, though, was a separate—seemingly unrelated, but quite connected—measure passed by the Florida House just an hour earlier. That bill, picking up on another major grievance of Donald Trump’s, threatened financial penalties against social media companies that banned politicians. It included, however, a specific carve-out for the Walt Disney Corporation and its Disney+ platform, stipulating that the bill did not include companies that own and operate theme parks.

Disney, of course, operates a well-known Florida theme park, and it is one of the state’s largest employers. It is also one of the state’s most prodigious donors to the elected officials who passed Florida’s latest voter suppression bill.

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The special carve-out for Disney in the social media measure demonstrates the pay-to-play dynamic that has enabled Republican-controlled legislatures across the country to propose and pass laws limiting the franchise on the back of Donald Trump’s lies about 2020 election fraud, without fear of the same amount of corporate backlash that followed the Republican efforts to overturn the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 insurrection.

While Disney issued a statement at the start of the year opposing the Jan. 6 insurrection and saying it would stop political donations to the federal Republican elected officials who voted to overturn the election, it has not said what it will do about donations to state officials who pass voter suppression measures based on the same lies that sparked the insurrection. Nor has the company joined hundreds of other corporations in taking a stand against Republican voter suppression bills.

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Instead, Disney looks poised to continue its generous support of the elected officials who just made it harder to vote in one of the nation’s key swing states. As of Friday, Disney had not responded to a request for a response to the Florida voting law, or to whether it would continue to donate to the elected officials who passed the bill.

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So far, the Florida legislation has not received even close to the amount of opposition generated by the Georgia law, perhaps because Donald Trump won Florida fairly easily and Joe Biden won Georgia by the slimmest of margins in the last presidential election. Florida activists have not yet been able to generate the sort of public backlash to the corporate backers of their state’s law that occurred in neighboring Georgia and resulted in Major League Baseball pulling its All-Star Game from Atlanta.

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In any effort to pressure Florida-based corporations to turn against the voting restrictions, Disney would be key, but so far it seems to feel little pressure to act. After Georgia’s voting restrictions passed, Disney refused to join the countless corporations that condemned the law, likely in large part because of tax subsidies that make it cheap to film in the state—the company has filmed nearly a dozen Marvel movies in Georgia.

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Similarly, as demonstrated by the special “social media” carve-out for companies that run theme parks, Disney is heavily dependent on the support of the Florida Legislature, and its Republican majority, for its bountiful business operations in the state. Indeed, Disney has quietly, but heavily, backed the Florida elected officials who on Thursday made it harder for the state’s residents to vote, the same day they protected Disney’s interests.

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As reported two years ago by Florida Trend magazine, Disney spent $7.7 million on Florida elections in 2018, including $5 million to candidates, PACs, and political parties, with about 75 percent of that money going to Republican causes. In that cycle, Disney donated $218,000 to support Sen. Wilton Simpson, the current Senate majority leader whose body passed the voter suppression package earlier this week on Confederate Memorial Day. Disney also gave Simpson at least $977.38 worth of “in kind” perks such as free hotel rooms or theme park tickets. The current speaker of the House in Florida, Republican Chris Sprowls, and his connected committees similarly received $40,000 in the 2018 cycle from Disney. Another backer of the voter suppression legislation and the social media Disney carve-out in the Senate, Kelli Stargel, received $21,000 to her campaign and connected committees, while also receiving at least $15,190.89 in freebie goodies from Disney. That is the equivalent of 139 days’ worth of free entrances to Walt Disney World theme park in Orlando. For his part, Gov. Ron DeSantis, who promised on Thursday evening to sign the voter suppression bill, received at least $50,000 from Disney for his own political committee in 2019.

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Ultimately, Disney appears unconcerned with the threat of public pressure in the face of its massive contributions to vote suppressers in Florida. The Washington Post reported on Thursday that lawmakers believe Disney has made an explicit calculation that its business—largely dependent on tourists, moviegoers, and Disney+ subscribers from outside the state—won’t suffer even if Florida’s voters will.

One constituency absent from the debate in Tallahassee is the business sector, which in both Georgia and Texas weighed in to oppose voter restrictions. There has been less of that in Florida, both Republicans and Democrats said, because the business groups are largely aligned with the GOP on regulatory and tax issues, and many of the leading businesses rely on tourist-heavy customer bases who aren’t exerting any pressure.

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“You would have to believe that people would stop coming to Florida because Republicans are suppressing the vote,” Rep. Omari Hardy, a Democrat, told the paper. “I don’t think the business community has made that calculation.”

Hardy is likely right about that, unless the sizable numbers of blue-state consumers of Disney products have the same reaction to Disney that they did to the Georgia businesses that refused to speak out against that state’s law. In the meantime, every time you watch The Mandalorian on Disney+, or buy the latest Elsa doll for your kid’s birthday, or watch the newest Marvel movie in theaters, or visit a Disney theme park, you are giving your money to a company that is in turn giving that money to the legislators who this week made it harder for Black people in Florida to vote.

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