Now Florida Republicans worry their new voting restrictions may backfire and hurt GOP turnout

Florida Republicans spent decades making mail voting easier — before Trump spread lies about the election

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published May 3, 2021 9:35PM (EDT)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Hyatt Regency on February 26, 2021 in Orlando, Florida.  (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Hyatt Regency on February 26, 2021 in Orlando, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Florida Republicans passed a series of voting restrictions aimed at cracking down on mail ballot access in response to false claims by former President Donald Trump and his allies, but some Republican operatives are now worried that the new measures could backfire in a state where more than a third of Republicans vote by mail.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has vowed to sign Senate Bill 90, which will impose stricter ID requirements for mail ballots, restrict the use of ballot drop boxes and require voters to request ballots instead of automatically receiving them from an absentee voting list, among other provisions. But some Florida Republicans are "reacting with alarm" after the party spent decades and millions of dollars promoting mail voting, according to the Washington Post.

DeSantis and former Gov. Rick Scott, who now represents the state in the U.S. Senate, both benefited from the rise of mail voting among the party as GOP lawmakers passed laws to make it easier to cast ballots. In 2020, nearly 35% of all Republican voters submitted ballots by mail, according to the report. Democrats have worried that the bill will disproportionately affect voters of color, some Republicans are concerned the party will damage its own electoral prospects while rushing to respond to Trump's election lies.

"Donald Trump attempted to ruin a perfectly safe and trusted method of voting," a longtime Republican consultant told the Post. "The main law that we pass when we pass election bills in Florida is the law of unintended consequences."

Republicans have spent decades boosting mail voting, going all the way back to 1988. GOP operatives encouraged elderly voters to cast absentee ballots and in 2002 implemented a no-excuses vote-by-mail system that allowed anyone to cast a ballot by mail, including Trump himself. Republicans later passed a law creating a mail-ballot request list, which allowed voters who request mail ballots to automatically receive them for two subsequent election cycles because the use of mail ballots had become so popular. As recently as 2018, the GOP passed a law that required a drop box at every early voting site.

"That was before their leader's attack on mail balloting," former Leon County Election Supervisor Ion Sancho told the Post.

The bill passed last week will prevent voters from automatically receiving mail ballots and will require any drop boxes to be staffed at all times and available only during early voting hours.

The law's supporters dismissed concerns that the law may adversely impact Republican turnout.

"It's not going to hurt anybody, Republicans or Democrats," state Sen. Joe Gruters, the chairman of the Florida GOP, told the Post. "People are going to understand the changes that were made long before another election comes around. People will have a full grasp of what we're dealing with. … My goal is to make it as easy as possible to vote and as hard as possible to cheat, period."

Research has consistently shown that cheating or fraud in mail ballots is virtually nonexistentMultiple recounts and audits in the 2020 election found no evidence of any widespread fraud.

Gruters told the Post that his goal is to expand early in-person voting, an ironic twist given the state's recent electoral history.

Republicans, led by Scott, cracked down on early voting after Barack Obama carried Florida in 2008, in large part due to increased early in-person voting by Black voters. The state severely limited early voting hours, a move critics said was directly aimed at shrinking Black turnout.

"Fifty-four percent of African American votes that year were cast at in-person early-voting sites," Sancho told the Post, arguing that law was intended to "frustrate" Black voters.

But the move resulted in long lines and prompted widespread backlash that caused the legislature to reverse the restrictions.

Democrats, meanwhile, tried to promote mail voting in response to the GOP success but did not see the same results, former Obama campaign aide Steve Schale told the Post. Black voters, who make up a large proportion of the state's Democratic base, were often distrustful of mail voting and wanted to ensure their ballots were counted. Democratic use of mail voting grew over time but Republicans still cast 1.08 million ballots by mail in 2018, compared to 1.027 million from Democrats. DeSantis and Scott both won their 2018 races by razor-thin margins.

When mail voting became a key issue amid the coronavirus pandemic last year, Trump responded by baselessly stoking fears in the voting method ahead of an election he ultimately lost by more than 7 million votes.

"It was comical to watch Trump light on fire 20 years of Republican work and tens of millions of Republican investment — literally lighting a match to it," Schale told the Post. "Every time he sent a tweet out, I'd get a text from a Republican operative here in Florida with an eye-roll emoji."

Republicans tried to counter Trump's rhetoric, trying to reassure voters that the state's system was fine with the president. Trump himself repeatedly tried to parse the difference between mail voting and absentee voting, even though there is no difference under Florida's no-excuse system.

More than 34% of Republicans still voted by mail in 2020 but Democrats saw a much bigger increase in mail voting amid Trump's attacks. The number of Black voters who cast mail ballots more than doubled from the 2016 election, according to Daniel Smith, an elections expert at the University of Florida.

Some Republicans "privately expressed concerns" that SB 90 would hurt GOP turnout as the bill made its way through the legislature, according to the Post. Some even suggested exempting elderly voters and military members from the provision requiring voters to request ballots each election cycle.

"Key lawmakers said, 'You can't do that.' It would raise equal protection problems," a former state party official told the outlet. "Now, you'll have military personnel who might not think they have to request a ballot who won't get it. And we've got senior voters who have health concerns or just don't want to go out. They might not know the law has changed, and they might not get a ballot, because they're not engaged."

Multiple Republican operatives told the outlet that members did not publicly speak up because they feared attacks from their own party leaders or voters who have framed the issue against the backdrop of increased Democratic mail voting last year.

But Schale warned that the trend may not continue, given that two of the biggest factors driving Democrats to vote by mail were the coronavirus and Trump's rhetoric. A paper published by Smith found that nearly one-fifth of Florida Republicans who said they would not vote by mail ended up doing so despite Trump's attacks.

"Make no mistake: Senate Bill 90 targets newly registered and younger voters, African Americans, as well as Democrats, who disproportionately switched to requesting and voting a mail ballot in November due to health concerns," Smith told the Post. "The GOP leadership has discounted any collateral damage, calculating that the benefit to the party outweighs any harm done to its party faithful."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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