Politics

With Florida Bill, Republicans Continue Unrelenting Push to Restrict Voting

The pleas from Florida election officials were direct and dire: Passing the state’s new voting bill would be a “grave security risk,” “unnecessary” and a “travesty.”

The restrictions imposed by the new law, they warned, would make it harder to vote and hurt confidence in the balloting process.

But their objections were brushed aside on Thursday night as the Legislature gave final passage to a bill that would limit voting by mail, curtail the use of drop boxes and prohibit actions to help people waiting in line to vote, among other restrictions, while imposing penalties on those who do not follow the rules. It was perhaps the clearest sign yet that Republicans are determined to march forward across state capitols to establish new restrictions on voting.

The Republican effort puts added pressure on Democrats in Congress to find a way to pass federal voting laws, including a sweeping overhaul known as the For the People Act. But in Washington, just as in state capitols across the country, Republicans have remained united and steadfast against the Democratic efforts.

Georgia Republicans in March enacted far-reaching new voting laws that limit ballot drop-boxes and forbid the distribution of food and water to voters waiting in line. Iowa has also imposed new limits, including reducing the period for early voting and in-person voting hours on Election Day.

Next up is Texas, where Republicans in the legislature are trampling protestations from corporate titans like Dell Technologies and American Airlines and moving on a vast election bill that would be among the most severe in the nation. It would impose new restrictions on early voting, ban drive-through voting, threaten election officials with harsher penalties and greatly empower partisan poll watchers. The main bill passed a key committee in a late-night session on Thursday, and could head to a full floor vote in the House as early as next week.

Bills to restrict voting have also been moving through Republican-led legislatures in Arizona and Michigan.

Throughout the process, Republican legislators have been largely unmoved by opposition to new voting laws by Fortune 500 companies, major American sports leagues, Black faith leaders and elections administrators. Nor has the lack of popular support for many of the bills deterred them. Even as some of the more strident initial proposals have been watered down, there has rarely been a pause, even for a moment, in the drive to pass new legislation on voting.

“I don’t think anybody was concerned about it,” Joe Gruters, a Florida state senator and the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said of outside criticism.

Tightening his state’s election laws, Mr. Gruters has said, is a top priority not just of Republican lawmakers but also of the party’s base. Though he characterized Florida’s election system as a national “gold standard” and said he wasn’t aware of any fraud in the 2020 election, Mr. Gruters said in a phone interview on Friday that his state’s voting could always be improved.

“It’s just like when the Tampa Bay Bucs won the Super Bowl — they’re still making improvements and signing new players,” he said.

A representative for Gov. Ron DeSantis said on Friday that he “is supportive” of the Florida bill, and he is widely expected to sign it. But state election officials were still protesting the measure on Friday morning, barely 12 hours after it had passed.

The group representing Florida election supervisors issued a statement lamenting the new limits on voting by mail, saying the changes would make it “harder” to cast a mail ballot. “After days of debate, our hope is that the initial and unnecessary call for election reform will not detract from the confidence that was well-earned in 2020,” Craig Latimer, the head of the group, said in the statement.

The unrelenting push by Republicans to roll back voting access has left Democrats exasperated. In an emotional floor speech before the final vote in Florida on Thursday night, State Representative Angela Nixon of Tampa both pleaded with her colleagues to vote against the bill and chastised those supporting it.

“It’s very frustrating, and it’s super hard to be in this chamber, and to be cool with people and cordial with people who are making policies that are detrimental to our communities,” said Ms. Nixon, her voice shaking at times.

The fixation on voting laws reflects how central the issue has become to the Republican Party, driven by a base that still adheres to former President Donald J. Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Pledges to ensure voting integrity have become common in political ads and stump speeches, and opposition to the federal voting rights bills in Congress is universal among Republican members.

A number of Republicans running for office in 2022 have begun campaigns with messaging that pushes the false narrative that the nation’s voting systems are flawed. They include Representative Ted Budd of North Carolina, who on Wednesday announced a Senate bid with a three-minute video in which he called for fair and secure elections, adopting Republicans’ rationale for revamping the voting laws.

In a political era in which partisan primaries are often the only challenge a candidate faces, the party’s base has become a chief driver of legislative action. A CNN poll released on Friday found that while 97 percent of Democrats believed President Biden “legitimately won enough votes to win the presidency,” 70 percent of Republicans surveyed said he did not.

And polling from Quinnipiac University in April found that a vast majority of Republicans — 78 percent — were opposed to expanding vote by mail, and 84 percent believed that voter fraud was a greater threat than voter suppression. (Numerous audits, court cases and reports have found no significant fraud in the 2020 election.)

Republicans have been largely dismissive of the business community’s objections to new voting restrictions, part of a longer-running split between the parties and local chambers of commerce that began when corporations vocally opposed laws enacted by Republican-run states in the 2010s that sought to protect businesses from having to recognize same-sex marriage.

An array of corporations also denounced the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and said they would not donate to Republican members of Congress who voted to overturn the election results. That threat didn’t sway most lawmakers from their fealty to Mr. Trump, and in the weeks since the attack, some companies have pulled back from that pledge.

Indeed, some Republicans have turned public opposition from major businesses and outside entities into a political weapon; rather than seek to appease businesses, lawmakers have instead taunted them, castigating corporate activism and daring businesses to act.

“Major League Baseball caved to fear and lies from liberal activists,” Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia announced the day after the decision by Major League Baseball to move its All-Star Game from Atlanta. Free and fair elections, he said, “are worth the threats.” He added, “They are worth the boycotts, as well as the lawsuits. I want to be clear: I will not be backing down from this fight.’’

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Texas was just as firm. “Texans are fed up with corporations that don’t share our values trying to dictate public policy,” he said after American Airlines released a statement denouncing one of the voting bills in the state. “The majority of Texans support maintaining the integrity of our elections, which is why I made it a priority this legislative session.”

Republicans not in thrall to Mr. Trump see the standoff with businesses as an ominous sign. “We say the party has gone full Trump, but what we mean is the party has gone full populist and nationalist,” said Michael Wood, an anti-Trump Republican running in Saturday’s 23-candidate special election to Congress in the Dallas suburbs. “We’ve turned away from our roots as a pro-business party, a pro-small business party, and that, if we don’t correct course, is going to be really bad for America.”

Yet Republicans are also seizing on a potential political opportunity. The aftermath of the 2020 election, and Mr. Trump’s insistence that the vote was rigged, provided the party with the first major public support from its partisans to pursue new voting legislation, after the Supreme Court hollowed out the Voting Rights Act in 2013.

Indeed, many of the laws being proposed and passed by Republicans would most likely have been challenged by the Justice Department under what was known as the preclearance provision in Section 5 of the act.

“We saw something like this in 2010 after Obama got elected,” said Myrna Pérez, the director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “But we had more of a pushback and were able to block or blunt many of those laws. Now there’s not the kind of guardrails that we had in the past, and voters are suffering because of it.”

Mr. Wood, the Texas Republican running in Saturday’s special election, worries that this could drive away supporters.

“It’s keeping Republicans from talking honestly to themselves about why we’re getting a smaller and smaller share of the vote in Texas,” he said. “We can either have that conversation, or keep screaming about quote unquote ‘election integrity’ and watch the state become progressively more Democratic.”

That debate could well be decided soon when the Texas Legislature takes up its own voting bill.

Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting.

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