Florida limits absentee voting with new Republican-backed law

By Julia Harte

(Reuters) -Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Thursday signed a law curtailing access to absentee ballots and adding new hurdles to the process of submitting them, the latest Republican-backed voting restrictions to become law in a U.S. election battleground state.

The new law restricts the use of absentee ballot drop boxes to the early voting period, adds new identification requirements for requesting such ballots and requires voters to re-apply for absentee ballots in each new general election cycle. Previously, Florida voters only had to register for an absentee ballot once every two election cycles.

The law also gives partisan election observers more power to raise objections and requires people offering voters assistance to stay at least 150 feet (45 meters) away from polling places, an increase from the previous 100-foot (30-meter) radius.

Republican legislators in numerous states have pursued measures to restrict voting rights in the aftermath of former President Donald Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him through widespread voting fraud.

Minutes after DeSantis signed the law, the League of Women Voters of Florida and two other civil rights groups sued Florida’s 67 counties to try to block the new restrictions. They are represented by Marc Elias, a Democratic lawyer who also sued Georgia over voting limits the state passed in March.

Republican lawmakers, in pursuing the new measures, have cited the claims made by Trump, a Florida absentee voter himself, after his decisive loss to Democrat Joe Biden.

Judges rejected such claims in more than 60 lawsuits that failed to overturn the election result. Lawmakers in Republican-controlled states including Georgia, Texas and Arizona nevertheless proposed legislation that they said was necessary to curb voter fraud, which is relatively rare in the United States.

DeSantis acknowledged in a February press release that Florida had “held the smoothest, most successful election of any state in the country” in November, but said new limits on absentee ballots were needed to safeguard election integrity.

DeSantis, who signed the law in an appearance on the Fox News Channel show “FOX & Friends,” said, “Me signing this bill here says, ‘Florida, your vote counts, your vote is going to be cast with integrity and transparency.'”

Mail-in ballots or absentee ballots were used by Democratic voters in greater numbers than Republicans in the 2020 election as many people avoided in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

Florida Republicans used mail-in voting slightly more than Democrats in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 general elections. But in November, Democrats submitted 2.2 million mail-in ballots compared to 1.5 million from Republican voters, state records show.

“Florida’s Republican legislative leaders seem determined to weaken the system that voters have relied on, without significant problems, for the better part of a generation,” Sylvia Albert, voting and elections director for good-government watchdog Common Cause, said in a statement on April 28 after Florida’s House passed the bill.

In March, Georgia’s Republican governor signed a law that tightened absentee ballot identification requirements, restricted ballot drop box use and allowed a Republican-controlled state agency to take over local voting operations.

Democrats and voting rights advocates sued Georgia over the measure, saying it was aimed at disenfranchising Black voters, whose heavy turnout helped propel Biden to the presidency and delivered Democrats two U.S. Senate victories in Georgia in January that gave them control of the chamber. Top U.S. companies also decried Georgia’s law, and Major League Baseball moved its All-Star game out of the state in protest.

(Reporting by Julia Harte in WashingtonEditing by Colleen Jenkins and Bernadette Baum)

Appeals court finds Florida can require felons to pay fines before right to vote is restored

By Jarrett Renshaw

(Reuters) – A federal appeals court ruled on Friday that Florida can require felons to pay all fines, restitution and legal fees they face before they can regain their right to vote, reversing a lower court ruling that held the measure unconstitutional.

The ruling, by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, could influence the election outcome in November.

Florida is considered a must-win in President Donald’s Trump’s bid for re-election and disenfranchised felons account for a significant voting bloc in a state with a history of tight elections.

The dispute, which could ultimately head to U.S. Supreme Court, centers on whether the law is a way around a voter-approved 2018 measure that aimed to end the state’s lifetime prohibition on voting by ex-felons.

The Republican-controlled Florida legislature passed the law the following year, requiring all former felons to pay off outstanding court debts and legal fees to be eligible to vote.

Voting and civil rights groups sued the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, and state election officials over that requirement.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle in May struck down most of the law as unconstitutional, describing it as a “pay to vote” scheme.

The appeals court, dominated by judges appointed by Trump, delayed the decision while it considered on appeal.

On Friday, a majority of the 11-judge panel found the defendants in the case failed to prove the measure violated the constitution, noting the country has a long history of placing restrictions on voting.

The decision was met with frustration by voting rights groups.

“Florida’s voters spoke loud and clear when nearly two-thirds of them supported rights restoration at the ballot box in 2018,” said Paul Smith, vice president at Campaign Legal Center. “Nobody should ever be denied their constitutional rights because they can’t afford to pay fines and fees.”

(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky)

Florida declares emergency on Atlantic coast as Hurricane Isaias approaches

By Zachary Fagenson and Nathan Layne

MIAMI (Reuters) – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for counties on the Atlantic coast with Hurricane Isaias expected to hit the state as early as Friday night, a development that prompted the widespread closure of COVID-19 testing sites.

The hurricane, packing maximum sustained winds of 75 miles (120.7 km) per hour, is currently lashing the southeastern part of the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said on its Twitter feed.

The NHC said heavy rains may begin to affect South and east-Central Florida beginning late Friday night, and the eastern Carolinas by early next week, potentially causing flooding in low-lying and poorly drained areas.

DeSantis told a news conference that he signed an executive order establishing a state of emergency for east coast counties stretching from Miami-Dade in the south to Nassau at the northern tip, a move that makes it easier to mobilize resources.

“While current projections have the eye of Isaias remaining at sea the situation remains fluid and can change quickly,” the governor said. “I want Floridians to know that the state of Florida is fully prepared for this.”

Miami-Dade’s public beaches, parks, marinas, and golf courses were set to close on Friday as Isaias strengthened to a Category 1 hurricane and forecasters predicted it would reach Category 2, with winds as powerful as 110 miles per hour.

Miami-Dade County officials have also closed drive-through and walk-up testing sites for COVID-19, following a similar move by Broward County Mayor Dale V.C. Holness, who said the sites could reopen on Wednesday after the storm had passed.

“We have thousands of tests that will not be conducted until we get these test sites up and running again,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said in a news conference on Friday.

For weeks Florida has been at the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak – it reported a record one-day increase in COVID-19 deaths for a third consecutive day on Thursday -although reports of new cases have recently slowed in the state.

DeSantis said COVID-19 testing sites would remain open on Florida’s west coast and that testing at hospitals and community centers may also continue. The storm’s main impact would be to sites set up outside and vulnerable to the wind, he said.

At full capacity, Florida had 162 test sites in all but two of its 67 counties.

The governor also said he planned to issue new guidance on testing to narrow its scope. He estimated that currently about half of the people who were being tested were either “curious” without symptoms or people looking to go back to work.

DeSantis said the state’s department of health, based on recently issued guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would now suggest that employers focus on symptomatic people, rather than screening all workers.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Nick Zieminski, Jonathan Oatis, David Gregorio and Paul Simao)