Black voters in Florida express fear, confusion as DeSantis election laws kick in

Photo for The Washington Post by Scott McIntyre
People register for raffles during a Soul to the Polls event in Hallandale Beach, Fla., last month.

HOBE SOUND, Fla. – Geraldine Harriel usually helps her elderly parents vote by taking their mail-in ballots to the elections office for them. But new voting laws in Florida and Gov. Ron DeSantis’s elections police force had her questioning that this year.

So on a recent Sunday, she drove them to an early-voting site – gingerly guiding her 80-year-old mother who walks with a cane to the entryway and then pushing her 84-year-old father in a wheelchair along the same path.

“Nobody wants to take the chance of being picked up,” Harriel, 65, said, referring to the voting police unit, which made its first arrests in August.

Tuesday will mark the first major election in Florida since the legislature pushed through changes impacting voting in the Sunshine State. Voter advocates say the laws disproportionately impact Black voters – making it harder for many to vote – and have created an environment of confusion and fear.

Voters can deliver ballots for immediate family members – but there are new forms to fill out and some like Harriel worry that even a small mistake could result in a fine or an arrest. It is now illegal to turn in more than two ballots that don’t belong to a close relative. There are new restrictions for organizations that help register voters. And shortly after its inception, DeSantis’s Office of Election Crimes and Security announced deputies had made 20 arrests – 15 of them involving Black voters accused of voting illegally.

The arrested voters were charged with casting ballots even though they did not qualify to vote. A state constitutional amendment gives most people formerly convicted of a felony the right to vote. Several of those arrested say they thought they qualified. They applied to register, got voting cards and were never told they had acted improperly until officers showed up to question them on a summer afternoon.

“These laws were put in place to intimidate people, and that’s what’s happening,” LaVon Bracy, the director of democracy for Faith in Florida, a religious nonprofit that encourages civic participation. “People are just wondering, is it worth it?”

Supporters of the new laws and the election crimes office say these changes are needed to guarantee secure and fair elections – even though there is no evidence of widespread fraud. In the 2020 election, 11.1 million Floridians voted. The new police unit has turned up only a handful of potentially problematic votes. A judge has already dismissed one case.

“Our efforts are designed to enforce the existing laws and ensure that every legal vote counts,” DeSantis press secretary Bryan Griffin said. “In Florida, it is easy to vote but hard to cheat.”

The new laws have been challenged in court. A U.S. District judge in Florida struck down many of the most controversial changes earlier this year, in an opinion that cited the state’s “grotesque history of racial discrimination.” The DeSantis administration appealed, and an appellate court overturned the judge’s decision, leaving the laws in place for now.

For many years, Bracy delivered mail-in ballots to the elections office for those who couldn’t get to the polls and didn’t trust the U.S. Postal Service to get their votes in on time. The daughter of Florida civil rights leaders said she would pick them up at church and in apartment complexes for older voters who didn’t drive.

“I have been one who has collected hundreds of ballots, all legitimate ballots, to help persons and make it convenient for them to vote,” Bracy said. “Now I’m getting calls from people saying ‘Ms. Bracy, can you come get my ballot?’ I say, ‘Sorry, no. I’m not going to risk getting a police record.'”

DeSantis calls what Bracy and other voter advocates did for years to help deliver ballots “ballot harvesting,” and this year he signed a law that makes it a third-degree felony punishable by $5,000 and up to five years in prison.

The governor’s critics say he has remade elections in Florida to favor his personal philosophy – that voting is best done in person – and give an advantage to his party. In 2020, 53 percent of Democrats used mail-in ballots compared with 34 percent of Republicans and 43 percent with no party affiliation, according to a study by the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University.

“This is a solemn thing,” DeSantis said about voting in August. “You go in, you have a divider, you make it, it’s secret, you put it in the box, and that’s the way it should be. When you start getting away from that and you have a whole bunch of people handling these ballots, that is not the way you conduct elections.”

The new laws also affect groups that help sign up voters. Black residents have traditionally registered to vote through third-party groups more than any other demographic, said Daniel A. Smith, an elections expert at the University of Florida. Voter advocacy organizations often fan out to street fairs, churches and supermarkets – registering people who are eligible but might not go to the Department of Motor Vehicles because they don’t have a car.

But that has begun to change. Voter registration groups can now be fined up to $50,000 in Florida if they are found to have violated the law. The new laws include a requirement to post signs that say they might not deliver the registration forms in time.

In 2018, more than 96,000 people registered to vote with third-party organizations, Smith said. This year, only about 31,000 have.

“It’s a huge drop-off,” Smith said. “People are afraid of somehow running afoul of the law, and a lot of organizations don’t want to take that risk, because it could basically bankrupt them.”

Another rule limits the time and places that ballot drop boxes – now called secure ballot intake stations – are available. Cecile Scoon, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said that rule also disproportionately impacts Black voters.

“Given the multiple jobs that many African Americans have, and the shift work they do, it’s going to be impossible, or close to impossible, for them to get off during regular business hours to use the drop box,” Scoon said during a congressional subcommittee elections hearing in May.

In November last year, Republicans passed Democrats in the number of registered voters in Florida, and the gap has continued to widen. For this election, more than 5.2 million Republicans are registered, compared with 4.9 million Democrats and 3.9 million with no party affiliation.

DeSantis began revamping election laws soon after he narrowly won his first race for governor in 2018. He defeated Democrat Andrew Gillum by 32,463 votes out of more than 8 million cast – a margin of 0.4 percent, which was so close it required a recount.

That election was marred in dispute. Then-Gov. Rick Scott (R) directed state authorities to investigate election officials in Palm Beach and Broward counties in his own close race for a seat in the U.S. Senate against incumbent Bill Nelson (D) as well. Scott claimed that “there may be massive fraud” – though he provided no evidence to back up the assertion.

He got support from President Donald Trump, but state investigators did not pursue any charges or reveal proof of vote-tampering.

Dozens of police officers were called in to guard the warehouse where Broward elections officials were counting votes, as hundreds of protesters, most of them supporters of the former president, demonstrated outside. The chaotic scene was national news for days.

When he took office, DeSantis vowed those circumstances would not be repeated. During his first weeks in office, he ousted the elections supervisor in Palm Beach County and accepted the resignation of her counterpart in Broward.

DeSantis and the GOP-led state legislature instituted other changes in 2019, including extending vote-by-mail deadlines and requirements that counties have efficient voting machines. The 2020 election ran smoothly in the state, and DeSantis called it the “gold standard” for the nation. Trump won Florida that year by more than three percentage points.

“Perhaps 2020 was the year we finally vanquished the ghost of Bush versus Gore,” DeSantis said the day after the election.

But he said “it wasn’t perfect,” which is why new laws were needed.

Republicans also enacted additional requirements for felons to register, despite an amendment passed by 65 percent of Florida voters in 2018 that gave felons the right to vote if they completed their sentences and hadn’t been convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses.

The 20 people arrested in August by the new police crimes unit had been convicted of those disqualifying offenses – but several told The Washington Post that they had gotten a green light from election officials to cast a ballot. Soon after the arrests, the state made changes to probation forms, adding a line noting that “you agree that you are solely responsible for determining if you are legally able to register to vote and that you must solely determine if you are lawfully qualified to vote.”

DeSantis transformed not only elections laws, but also political boundaries for candidates. This year, he rejected his own party’s congressional redistricting maps and, in a first for a Florida governor, had his staff draw one he preferred. The DeSantis map favors the GOP and eliminated one district that links eight counties with large Black populations along the state’s northern border. It also reduced the size of another district with a majority minority population farther south.

The changes have been applauded by Republicans both in Florida and around the country.

Florida GOP consultant Anthony Pedicini said the state’s elections are run well thanks in large part to DeSantis, and he rejects allegations of voter suppression in the new laws. He said Republicans have overtaken Democrats in voter registrations because DeSantis’s policies appeal to more people.

Despite complaints and lawsuits against the new laws, Pedicini said, the state makes it easy to vote.

“You still have 30 days to vote by mail and 21 days to walk in the precinct before the election and cast your ballot. So in Florida, we have a tremendous amount of opportunities for people to vote, not just on Election Day, but in-person voting before Election Day and through the mail,” Pedicini said. “If you can’t find your way to vote in 30 days prior to the election, you probably don’t want to vote.”

Voting advocacy groups are holding fewer registration drives and are not offering to take in ballots, but they did ramp up to drive people to the polls the day early voting began in October. Faith in Florida helped organize more than two dozen events around the state in addition to reaching out to churches, mosques and temples. Many events were styled as block-party celebrations in which volunteers provided food, music, dancing and games for kids.

Johnny Henderson, 75, took a volunteer ride to cast his ballot after listening to the Sunday sermon at New Mt. Zion in Hobe Sound last week. The pastor there, David George, said he doesn’t tell his congregants how to vote, just that they should vote, and he offered the church van to get them to voting booths at a nearby library.

Henderson said he appreciates volunteers helping people vote and also figure out the new elections laws so they don’t get in trouble.

“Every election, it seems like a different law is put into place,” Henderson said. “I’m not criticizing, but it seems like they’re trying to make it harder to vote.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Scott McIntyre
Attendees walk through a get-out-the-vote event put on by Faith in Florida in Hallandale Beach.