One Senate Democrat called the legislation “a slap in the face.”
TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers worked into the night Thursday to approve a pair of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ top priorities: New limits on mail ballots and drop boxes along with fresh sanctions on social media platforms.
Both measures grew out of last November’s presidential elections. Democrats outperformed Republicans in voting-by-mail and former President Trump was banned from social media sites over the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
The elections overhaul drew fierce debate Thursday in the Senate, which approved the measure 23-17, with Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg the lone Republican opposed. The House followed suit, 77-40, mostly along party lines.
The legislation (SB 90) would require voters wanting a mail ballot after next year’s elections to make the request before every general election.
Once signed by DeSantis, it also restricts drop boxes to early voting sites during their hours of operation or to an elections supervisor’s office – and they have to be supervised by an elections staffer.
Moreover, elections supervisors could be subject to $25,000 fines for leaving a drop box unattended.
“I think that’s a slap in the face … toward our supervisors of elections,” said Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami. “It makes no sense that this is still in this bill.”
Governor at war with social media: Gov. DeSantis says ‘big tech’ looks like ‘big brother’
Elections measure less restrictive than Georgia’s
The elections changes are less restrictive than what Florida Republicans earlier proposed — and far less than what some GOP-controlled legislatures have advanced in other states, notably Georgia, where they’ve prompted business boycotts.
But they remain politically charged.
Florida conducted a largely flawless election last November, prompting Democrats to question the motives behind the overhaul. They also challenged new restrictions limiting who can drop off ballots for others and barring non-governmental organizations from helping to finance elections.
“This bill is not needed,” said Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville. “It’s still a suppression bill and we can do better as a state.”
But Republicans argue “guardrails” are needed. Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, said the revisions will enhance ballot security.
“We did have a great election,” Hutson said. “So why should we be satisfied there?”
A record 11.1 million voters cast ballots in Florida last November – with 43%, or 4.8 million Floridians, voting by mail. Of those, about 1.5 million used drop boxes.
About 45% of Democrats voted by mail in November, compared with 31% of Republicans in Florida. The imbalance stemmed from Trump discouraging voting-by-mail, insisting without evidence that the practice was rife with fraud.
Social media bill aimed at ‘de-platforming’
The social media bill drew less debate – but also was ripped from the headlines of the last presidential election.
That legislation (SB 7072) imposes hefty fines on Twitter, Facebook and other sites that censor people – similar to what happened to Trump and many other conservative users posting dubious content about election fraud, Covid-19 and other issues.
It was approved 23-17 in the Senate and 77-37 in the House.
It orders social media companies to publish standards with detailed definitions of when someone would be censored or blocked and makes companies subject to as much as $250,000 daily fines for de-platforming a Florida candidate.
The bill also requires a site to notify users within seven days that they could be censored, giving them time to correct the posting.
State and federal courts have generally taken a hands-off view involving regulating online platforms. Congress also has not weighed into the debate, although the action involving Trump has revived discussions.
Florida’s move raises a host of constitutional issues, with opponents saying it violates both interstate commerce and free speech protections.
DeSantis called for Florida to now regulate the sites by condemning the “oligarchs in Silicon Valley” for de-platforming Trump and other conservatives.
Without citing evidence, DeSantis said the privately owned online giants are using their size, advertising power and global reach to influence thought and play favorites – being tougher on those who comment from the political right than left.
DeSantis revived his criticism recently after a roundtable he held in March was taken down from YouTube because the governor and scientists he invited were accused of airing COVID-19 misinformation.
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport