The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It is obviously accurate to refer to the Florida voting law as ‘restrictive’

People wait in line to drop off their mail-in ballots for the general election at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department on Oct. 14, 2020, in Doral, Fla. (Lynne Sladky/AP)
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As a literate human who exists in the United States, you are familiar with the half-glass-of-water thought experiment. Optimists, we are told, see the glass as half full. Pessimists see it as half empty. One’s view of the glass is based on how one perceives it.

It’s an analogy simplistic to the point of being the subject of inexpensive wall decorations at Marshalls. But it’s also simplistic in the sense that it elides considerations of how the glass got to that state. If it was empty and filled halfway, it seems more useful to describe it as half full. If it was once full and then half of it was drained, it seems more descriptive to say that it is half empty.

On Thursday morning, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed into law the most recent effort by Republicans to change voting rules in a state after the 2020 election. There have at times been efforts to cast those changes as being somehow independent of former president Donald Trump’s dishonest claims about voter fraud in last year’s elections, but no one should give such claims any credence. An election that DeSantis touted in the days after Nov. 3 is suddenly an election that shows how the rules need to be tightened for little other obvious reason than that DeSantis has aspirations that require support from as many Republicans around the country as possible.

Yet many DeSantis supporters and other Republicans have been adamant that the changes being made are not actually restrictions. To label the law in Florida or the similar one in Georgia using that term is to be displaying bias, we are told, to be claiming — with purported malice — that a full glass is a half-empty one.

This is not a good argument.

To explain why, I spoke with Daniel Smith, a University of Florida professor who is perhaps the foremost authority on the state’s voting laws. I asked him to offer his assessment of how the new law signed by DeSantis is restrictive.

For example, the law restricts the use of ballot drop boxes to the hours during which county supervisors’ offices are open or during early voting hours. Drop boxes were in use before 2020, though their use expanded given the coronavirus pandemic. But moving forward, the use of the boxes will be constrained.

“It's like having ATMs outside of banks, but only being able to use the ATM during normal banking hours,” Smith said. The utility is greatly diminished.

Now, one can argue about whether that’s a restrictive change that will affect voting. After all, there are still drop boxes and, in fact, drop box availability is codified in the law. But of course, any limit to how people can vote risks reducing the number of votes cast. Someone pulls up at 5:05 p.m. to drop off a ballot and finds the drop box inaccessible, for example — and then doesn’t have time to come back before Election Day.

Or, as Smith pointed out, there may be additional logistical problems. If drop boxes are only at places where other business is underway and only during business hours, there might be parking or other challenges that come into play. Putting a drop box where a number of other people are already congregating will probably make that drop box harder to access.

The law also makes it harder to get an absentee ballot, requiring that people submit a Social Security number or a driver's license number before obtaining one. For many Floridians this won't be a big deal. But for those who've misplaced their Social Security cards or don't have up-to-date licenses — a group that probably includes many older Floridians — this adds a layer of bureaucracy. You have to figure out how to apply for a new card or go get a new license, a requirement that necessarily restricts who can obtain an absentee ballot.

It also potentially limits younger voters. Smith used the example of a student who goes to college out of state and gets a driver’s license in his new state, say, to go to bars. (This is a common motivation for college students.) In doing so, the student no longer has a license that he can use to request an absentee ballot in the state of Florida.

That student might be disadvantaged if he goes to school in-state, too. Imagine that he lives in Miami and is going to school in Jacksonville. A voter registration group is encouraging people at his college to register to vote and he fills out a registration form identifying his home as being in Miami-Dade County. In the past, the organization could just turn in all of those forms to officials up in Duval County. Now, though, turning in a Miami-Dade registration requires dropping it off in Miami-Dade. If it is instead dropped off in Duval, Smith said, there’s a substantial financial penalty — disincentivizing efforts to register more voters and, therefore, probably limiting how many people vote.

Another change limits the number of ballots that can be collected and turned in. The previous law had felony penalties for collecting a mail ballot and not turning it in, but allowed for volunteers to collect mail ballots from groups of people and submit them. (Think of a nursing home, for example, where an employee volunteers to collect residents’ ballots.) Now, there’s a limit: One can only collect ballots from immediate family members and, even then, only two.

“They call it ballot harvesting,” Smith said. “There were no examples from any of the [county] supervisors about problems with groups collecting vote-by-mail ballots and returning them” while the legislature was debating the law.

That point gets to the heart of the change. There was no evidence presented that collecting ballots led to attempted fraud, nor did county supervisors identify any problems with drop boxes in 2020. There’s no evidence otherwise that the changes identified above were important to maintaining election security, particularly since voter fraud is already vanishingly rare.

On the day after the election, the governor indicated no concern about how the election had been conducted.

“The way Florida did it, I think, inspires confidence,” DeSantis said in a news conference Nov. 4, 2020. “I think that’s how elections should be run. We’re now being looked at as the state that did it right, and the state that these other states should emulate.”

Yet because Trump and other Republicans made purported fraud so central to their recent rhetoric, the Florida legislature felt it had to respond. And it did so in ways that scaled back the process that had been in place six months ago.

Put another way, the glass is now less full than it was then. Advocates of broad voting access can be forgiven for viewing that change pessimistically. Those who insist that the glass actually somehow became full, on the other hand, should be ignored.