This story originally appeared on LX.com
MIAMI, Fla. – When then-Congressman Ron DeSantis cast his mail ballot for Florida’s primary election in 2016, election workers in his hometown flagged the signature as a mismatch.
When DeSantis provided the canvassing board a new signature as a backup to the signatures already on file, they determined that handwriting also had “no similarities” to the signature on DeSantis’ ballot and rejected the vote, according to Flagler County elections officials.
DeSantis, now Florida’s outspoken governor, declined several NBCLX requests for an interview and did not provide an explanation for why the signature on his ballot did not match his other signatures on file with local elections offices.
Florida’s proposed new voting restrictions, which mirror many of the controversial proposals in dozens of other Republican-led states, come just months after DeSantis, considered one of the early frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, touted his state’s November election as “the most transparent and efficient election anywhere in the country.”
DeSantis’ public voting history – obtained through public records requests from the St. Johns and Flagler supervisors of elections – shows he regularly took advantage of Florida’s no-excuse absentee option, casting votes by mail in six out of seven elections between March 2016 and August 2020. The only time he voted in-person during that period was at a well-choreographed photo opportunity, when he appeared atop the ballot during his 2018 gubernatorial run.
Now, DeSantis is leading the charge in Florida to change how voters obtain a mail ballot, as well as how easily they can drop it off at their local elections offices. Watchdogs have called the reforms unnecessary and discriminatory, targeting poor and minority voters, while Florida election officials – including many prominent Republicans – have criticized the proposals for the confusion and problems they could create.
“I was perplexed, disappointed, and confused,” said Pasco Co. Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley, a Republican, recounting how he felt when he learned of the proposed election reforms. “Florida was held up as the model of (election) success. State leaders took victory laps after the election.”
Other proposals from Florida Republicans included completely banning ballot drop boxes and canceling out all existing mail ballot requests for 2022 elections.
“I’m not really sure the ‘why’ of these measures,” Corley continued. “Voters love dropboxes. There were no issues in Florida with dropboxes…nobody can really address the legitimate reason why we’re doing this…there are so many safeguards in place.”
DeSantis is also advocating a change to voter signature-matching that would order elections officials to use only a voter’s most-recent signature to determine authenticity. That appears to contradict a court mandate, which ordered Florida officials to consider more than just one signature from a voter, when available, before casting a verdict on authenticity.
That proposal could also weaken the state’s existing ballot safeguards, according to multiple handwriting experts consulted by NBCLX last fall. They described the signature-matching process by poorly-trained election workers as less-than-ideal, particularly when election workers can not consult multiple examples of a voter’s signature.
Addressing hypothetical threats, but not a proven one
DeSantis told a West Palm Beach crowd in February, “There’s no state where you have as much transparency as the State of Florida and where you can have as much confidence in (ballot security) as the State of Florida.” No significant fraud was found in last November’s presidential election, which Donald Trump won by more than three points.
But DeSantis, saying “we can’t rest on our laurels,” proposed a series of reforms to address what he sees as hypothetical future election threats. Some election experts paint the reforms as over-aggressive measures that will disenfranchise legitimate voters.
“It looks like pure partisan politics,” said University of Florida political science professor Michael McDonald. “The 2020 election was arguably the most secure election we’ve had in the history of this country (so the reforms) seem like a solution looking for a problem.”
McDonald added that a proposal to require Florida voters to request mail ballots every election – instead of allowing them to request them for two elections at a time – will confuse and possibly disenfranchise many of 2020’s mail voters who already expect to get their 2022 ballots in the mail. State records show that nearly 45% of Florida’s ballot requests came from Democrats, compared to just 31% from Republicans.
“Of all the (proposed) election reforms, that one is probably the most-overtly partisan in the country,” McDonald said.
Corley says changing the state’s law to require voters to request a mail ballot each election – as some other states do – will cost the state between $4 million and $6 million just to mail notices to voters. And he says forcing voters to apply for a mail ballot more frequently will likely reduce turnout.
“Anyone who tells you there’s no fraud in elections is disingenuous,” Corley said. “Fraud exists. But by every measure, it’s (insignificant). There were no big issues with fraud in Florida in 2020.”
DeSantis has also received criticism from Democrats who say he’s ignoring an existing election threat, which recently resulted in criminal charges filed against a prominent Republican politician.
Former State Sen. Frank Artiles was arrested for allegedly funding a sham candidate to syphon off votes from a Democrat running in a state senate race, although his attorney, Frank Quintero, tells NBCLX that “convincing someone to run in an election is not a crime” and “we are looking forward to our day in court to present our evidence.”
“Unlike the dangerous, baseless claims of voter fraud impacting the 2020 Election, in this case, evidence actually exists that a multi-state fraud conspiracy was committed against Florida’s voters,” a group of Democratic Congressmembers wrote in a recent letter to the Dept. of Justice.
NBCLX asked DeSantis’ office if he had any plans to propose a law to address sham candidates, but a spokesperson did not provide an answer.
DeSantis, who once stirred controversy by tweeting that “voting is a privilege,” also told the West Palm Beach crowd that he wants to crack down on “get out the vote” campaigns.
The governor has made reforms on ballot harvesting - the process of delivering someone else’s completed ballot – a top priority. Florida authorities charged 20 individuals with crimes related to mail ballots between 2010 and 2015, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
“What we're doing is a lot of common-sense stuff,” said State Representative Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, the sponsor of the House elections bill. “It is putting safeguards on our election, making them even more safe; more secure; more transparent. And I think that's what Floridians want.”
Part of a national campaign
Florida’s House and Senate proposals are among the more than 350 bills this year that would restrict voting, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice.
But the proposals in the Sunshine State, a notoriously-swingy swing state where Florida Republicans have used mail voting to rack up six straight gubernatorial wins and 13 out of
15 state cabinet wins over the last two decades, are viewed as relatively modest compared to the proposals in some other states.
Georgia governor Brian Kemp signed a bill into law last month that overhauls state election rules – in particular, adding new vote-by-mail restrictions - even though multiple hand recounts and a Georgia Bureau of Investigation audit found not a single example of fraud in last November’s election. The bill has been widely-panned by Democrats, independent watchdogs, and voting rights groups alike, and it is currently facing a challenge in federal court.
Other state legislatures, according to the Brennan Center, are attempting to restrict voter registration opportunities, make voter purge practices more aggressive, increase voter ID requirements, and create new restrictions on mail voting.
Fallout from the bills has drawn hundreds of corporations such as Coca-Cola, Major League Baseball, and several Georgia- and Texas-based airlines into the political conversation. Many have issued statements criticizing how new legislation could create new obstacles for voters – particularly women and voters of color – to cast ballots.
DeSantis wouldn’t speak to NBCLX, but made several appearances on Fox News this week, including one where he said Florida would “not be governed by these big companies.”
“We’re doing the work of the people,” DeSantis said Tuesday on Fox & Friends, blaming criticism for the reforms on misleading political narratives. “Corporations should work on employing people and doing business; they should stay out of the political fray.”
Similar to many other elected officials, DeSantis has received millions of dollars in campaign contributions from corporations over the course of his nine-year political career.
Conservative think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation, have advocated for restricting access to the polls for years, even though attempts to identify examples of widespread fraud have mostly come up empty.
A Republican-led committee, created by then-President Trump in 2017 to investigate the previous fall’s presidential election, quietly disbanded when it found no significant fraud.
'The greatest rollback of voting rights since the Jim Crow era'
McDonald, the University of Florida political science professor, tweeted in February, “I don't say this lightly. We are witnessing the greatest roll back of voting rights in this country since the Jim Crow era.”
McDonald also told NBCLX he was suspicious of Republicans’ motives after they’ve spent years benefiting from mail balloting themselves.
“I do find it curious that whenever Democrats start voting in a certain way, Republicans suddenly become very interested in enacting laws that are going to make it more difficult for some people to vote,” McDonald said.
In Florida, Republican lawmakers were actually advised by a grand jury to address lax laws regarding ballot harvesting back in 2012; the legislature ignored the advice at the time, while Miami-Dade County instituted a local ban. It’s only after former President Trump encouraged Republicans not to vote by mail that the Republican-led legislature advanced the proposed new restrictions.
“We need to make sure our citizens have confidence in the elections,” DeSantis told the West Palm Beach crowd in February.
But his proposals appear to be largely unpopular across the state, where a March St Pete Polls/Florida Politics survey found only 42% of Floridians said DeSantis’ proposals to restrict dropboxes and add barriers to voting by mail were a good idea, with 58% responding they were a bad idea.
Florida had one of the country’s highest rates of confidence in the election last November, according to exit polls, with 86% of voters – including 86% of Trump voters – saying they had confidence in the state counting their ballots accurately.
“If you were really looking to improve election integrity,” McDonald said, “the number one thing I’d look to do (would be) automatic voter registration. Tying the driver’s license database to the voter registration database is a way to improve the quality of your (voting rolls)…with more accurate addresses and fewer duplicate entries.
“Look out west at the all-mail ballot election states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington); they mail ballots to everyone every year and they have not had widespread fraud.”
Republicans have some numbers on their side
Ingoglia, the sponsor of the elections reform bill in the Florida House, told NBCLX many Republican proposals, such as requiring an ID to vote, are widely popular across the U.S. And while countless investigations, studies, and audits have shown how difficult it is to cheat in a national election, he said ballot harvesting has been used to tilt the scale in smaller, local elections.
Mail ballot safeguards identified a Republican absentee ballot scheme in a 2018 Congressional race that prompted North Carolina to throw out the results of the election, as well as “ballot-stuffing” in the 2020 Patterson (N.J.) City Council election, held in the middle of the pandemic.
Many of Florida’s proposals would also finally address the 2012 recommendations of the Miami-Dade grand jury, including requiring voters to re-request mail ballots each election and putting more restrictions on who can handle the ballot of another voter.
Ingoglia went on to cite a pair of small attacks on ballot drop boxes as evidence they may not be a secure way to vote, while acknowledging there was nothing he could do about the thousands of USPS mailboxes across his state, which he himself has used to cast a ballot.
He also stood behind his proposal that would make it illegal to designate a representative outside of your family to pick up or mail your ballot. Former President Trump has acknowledged using an assistant to help him obtain and deliver his absentee ballot.
“That's right,” the Republican lawmaker said. “Under the law we're proposing, President Trump would not be allowed to have anybody possess his ballot.”
But both Corley and McDonald said Florida law has a number of precautions in-place already to detect and prevent the harvesting of a large number of ballots by a single person or group.
“There are a number of disadvantaged communities – those who are disabled, elderly - that need assistance to cast a ballot,” McDonald said. “And there are a number of organizations that help them do that. But they tend to (lean Democratic), so you see these efforts by Republicans to restrict them.”
Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.