Florida, DeSantis and the Future of Voting Rights
Voter suppression efforts to counteract a fake threat demonstrate the determination to pursue an anti-democratic future
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to be President, which would be laughable in a sane world. That’s a world in which an unnecessary death count (over 60,000 Covid-related deaths to date) and shameless cruelty end your future rather than increase your prospects for success on a national stage.
But here we are, saddled with a political party that operates more like a radical death cult, blithely encouraging followers to skip vaccination in the midst of a deadly pandemic, punishing schools that seek to protect children by requiring masks, and extolling the use of violence to excite and incite its base to take control. If fear, intimidation and death follow, that’s not just a price to pay on their road to success, but increasingly an expression of how they intend to keep power and govern if they succeed.
It’s in this madhouse of hostility—this upside-down world of authoritarian dreams, swept up in a belief that denying voters’ rights must now be synonymous with the American Way—that Ron DeSantis is triggering Florida’s future. If only this were an anomaly rather than an aggressive, methodical effort by GOP-led state legislatures across the country to make the Big Lie a real thing, undermine confidence in fair elections and rig the system to ensure only their candidates can take office. (As the Brennan Center notes, 19 states have passed 33 new laws so far to make it harder for Americans to vote.)
In the wake of the 2020 election, Florida prosecuted a dazzling number of cases of election fraud: One. But that didn’t stop DeSantis and his GOP majority from a legislative assault against a fantasized reality of voter shenanigans. As The New York Times noted, that bill was crafted to
“limit the use of drop boxes; add more identification requirements for those requesting absentee ballots; require voters to request an absentee ballot for each election, rather than receive them automatically through an absentee voting list; limit who could collect and drop off ballots; and further empower partisan observers during the ballot-counting process.”
In short, the goal of that legislation, passed in May, was to make it harder to vote. But DeSantis wasn’t done. Oh, no. He has a national reputation to burnish. So he wants more proposals to end the phantom fraud by limiting who gets to the ballot box.
Among the latest proposals are purges of eligible voters by requiring “routine maintenance” of voting rolls and making it a third-degree felony (rather than a misdemeanor now) when third parties collect more than two ballots. It’s not hard to grasp what’s going on here.
But the most egregious expression of DeSantis’ desires involves launching a law enforcement unit for elections with the ability “to investigate any crimes involving the election,” employing law enforcement officials, investigators and a statewide prosecutor. In this upside-down world, DeSantis calls this “election integrity reform” rather than a unit intended to intimidate voters.
Should this leave any lingering doubt about the anti-democratic, authoritarian mentality of the Florida governor, note his latest gambit announced last week: A civilian military unit under the governor’s control that is "not encumbered by the federal government" and has "the flexibility and the ability needed to respond to events in our state in the most effective way possible."
Yes, DeSantis depicted it as a way to support the Florida National Guard during hurricanes and other such disasters. Yes, other states have such auxiliary forces. But if there’s one thing we should have definitively learned over the Trump years, the worst possible intentions are likely to be closest to the truth. As CNN reported, two of his gubernatorial competitors saw this as the actions of “a wannabe dictator” and a governor hungry for “his own handpicked secret police.”
In a world that seems like a long distant past, but is actually just 15 years ago, the US Senate reauthorized the 1965 Voting Rights Act unanimously in 2006. In August, the House passed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act without a single Republican vote, but Senate Republicans blocked the vote last month using the filibuster. They had already blocked the Freedom to Vote Act, co-crafted by Sen. Joe Manchin with the promise to his Democratic colleagues that he could find 10 Republicans to support it.
While it’s questionable how much can be done at the state level to overcome the voter suppression laws in states with GOP majorities, the provisions in these two pieces of federal legislation would protect the right to vote, especially among communities of color, and push back against the anti-democratic state laws with restored national standards. Just the Freedom to Vote Act would set national standards, stop election sabotage to overturn valid results, halt partisan gerrymandering and cut the power of dark money.
But none of this is possible if the arcane filibuster continues to be treated as a sacred rule, no matter the damage to democracy. In July, President Biden said in a speech in Philadelphia that the county faces “the most dangerous threat to voting and the integrity of free and fair elections in our history.” But we have yet to hear him take the next step and vigorously call for the end to the filibuster to actually ensure this most dangerous threat from Ron DeSantis and other GOP legislators can be addressed.
Both Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema back the Freedom to Vote Act, but we have every reason to assume only the aggressive demands of President Biden may bend their resistance to ending the filibuster and making the passage of federal voting rights legislation possible. Failing that, the 2022 midterm elections may see a discouraged Democratic electorate and the arrival of Republican majorities.
Three weeks ago in a letter to fellow Democrats, Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer expressed his sadness that “our Republican colleagues have blocked Senate consideration of these [voting rights] bills at every turn.” He then promised “to find an alternative path forward to defend the most fundamental liberty we have as citizens” and said he’s “confident” they can “get it done” this calendar year.
Nice words. Action would be better. The clock is ticking.
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Addendum: For further information and possibilities for action, The Brennan Center for Justice and the Voting Rights Lab are two organizations that track voting rights legislation with a particular focus on voter suppression and its dangers to democracy.