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New voting rules prompt workarounds in Sarasota and Manatee counties

Vote by mail forms on a desk with a woman in the background
Jim DeLa
Community News Collaborative
Voter registration and vote-by-mail request forms are displayed in the lobby of the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections office.

Organizations and elections officials react to Florida’s changes in vote-by-mail and third-party registration.

New voting rules passed by the Florida Legislature in the spring are causing concerns from nonprofit groups as well as local elections officials as they prepare for balloting in 2024.

Critics say the new law creates unnecessary hurdles for voters, including increasing penalties for clerical errors made by third-party voter registration groups, and forcing voters who want to vote by mail to reapply before every election.

Third-party registration rules changing

The new law, Senate Bill 7050, was signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this year. The bill's supporters say many of the new restrictions are designed to prevent voter fraud. But nonprofit groups, including the League of Women Voters, say it's a thinly veiled attempt to put them out of business.

"I think it is classic voter suppression," said Shawn Bartelt of the League's Sarasota chapter.

"The state is looking to target people who are out in the community helping voters have access to voting," Bartelt said. "I just don't understand why things have come to that point."
Shawn Current, League of Women Voters Sarasota chapter

The new rules make it harder for third-party groups like the League to conduct registration drives. Among the changes, it requires every organization to re-register with the state for every cycle.

It also forbids organizations from prefilling information on registration applications; it shortens the time groups have to return applications to the state and increases the fines if they miss those deadlines.

It bars non-U.S. citizens from handling voter registration applications and increases the total amount of fines the state can levy against a group from $50,000 to $250,000 per year.

"The state is looking to target people who are out in the community helping voters have access to voting," Bartelt said. "I just don't understand why things have come to that point."

The League has joined lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, Dēmos, the Florida NAACP and others to block enforcement of the new law.

The federal judge in the case temporarily blocked enforcement of portions of the law — including the provision that bars noncitizens from helping to register voters, and a prohibition on keeping a voter’s personal information, such as their name and phone number, even with the voter’s consent.

To get around the new restrictions, the League has announced a new procedure.

At any voter registration event, volunteers are now armed with laptop computers, tablets and smart phones. Connecting to the state's voter registration site by Wi-Fi, citizens will, with volunteers' help, complete their own registration, which usually only takes a matter of minutes.

The League will also have blank voter registration forms available for those not wishing to go online. The League will provide a blank, stamped envelope that the citizens can use to mail the form to the proper office.

"We cannot take that envelope. We cannot turn that in to the county," Bartelt said. "Once we hand it to them, it's theirs and they have to mail it in or deliver it."

Bartelt says the League is committed to its mission. "We are going to be out there with our tablets. We're going to be out there with our mobile devices. We're going to be out there with our paper ballots, and we're going to make sure that we enable citizens to overcome whatever obstacles are there and help safeguard democracy."

Law affects vote-by-mail requests

Another provision is prompting county election officials to alert voters to changes in the vote-by-mail process.

Before SB 7050 took effect, any request made by a voter for a mail-in ballot was good for two years. The new law cancels all existing requests in Florida and requires a voter who wishes to vote by mail to submit a new request before every general-election cycle.

In Manatee County in 2022, more than 100,000 people voted by mail. Elections Supervisor Mike Bennett says his office has basically had to start over.

“We went from more than 100,000 voters having a request on record for a mail ballot to zero. "That 120,000 disappeared and we only have about 7,800 or 7,900 people (who have reapplied). So we're really concerned about it."
Tom Bennett, Manatee County Supervisor of Elections

“We went from more than 100,000 voters having a request on record for a mail ballot to zero,” Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Tom Bennett said. "That 120,000 disappeared and we only have about 7,800 or 7,900 people," who have reapplied. "So we're really concerned about it."

Bennett says since there are no local elections in Manatee County this fall, many people simply haven't gotten around to dealing with it. "I don't know that people are thinking about the elections," he said. "They hear all the (political) advertising ... but what they really don't think about their own personal voting."

Bennett's office has begun an outreach campaign to inform voters of changes in the law.

The numbers are a little better in Sarasota County, which had similar numbers of mail-in ballots in 2022. With a Venice city commission election coming up in November, Supervisor Ron Turner said his office had to get the word out early, and it paid off.

"We sent a mailing out to them and more than 60% responded to that mail," he said. "And then, certainly, we've gotten a few thousand outside of that. So we're actually about 70% back of where we were in 2022."

Turner says his office begins to send out mail-in ballots more than a month before an election. "Each election we mail ballots to overseas and military voters 45 days before an election. Then we begin mailing domestic mail ballots out about 40 days before."

Bennett is a proponent of mail-in ballots. He credits voting by mail and early voting for streamlining voters’ experience at the polls on Election Day. "We really don't have any lines anymore to speak of," Bennett said.

He added that a mail-in ballot is an insurance policy of sorts. "All of a sudden, you planned on going voting this morning, but lo and behold, you were sick," he said, "and you had that vote-by-mail ballot. All of a sudden you got called up north. You could have gotten it in the mail."

While a voter can request a mail-in ballot as late as 12 days before Election Day, Turner and Bennett are telling citizens not to wait.

"We're hoping that people realize now's the time to pick up the phone and call my office. Now's the time to fill out the paperwork," Bennett said.

"Voters really should be planning ahead, making a plan for 2024," Turner said.

Jim DeLa is a reporter for the Community News Collaborative. Reach him at jdela@cncfl.org