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The Senate is primed to pass a high-profile bill that would update Florida’s election laws.

Senators went through preliminary discussions over Republicans’ bill (SB 90) for stronger election laws to prevent election fraud and increase confidence in elections. Some say that fraud happened in other states and fear it could happen in Florida.

The Senate is expected to vote on the measure when it meets next.

Earlier this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Florida “can’t rest on (its) laurels” despite a successful 2020 cycle when announcing his vision for election reforms.

The package, carried by Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, addresses elections supervisors’ use of ballot drop boxes, signature matching on mail-in ballots, and a host of other technical issues related to voting-by-mail and election administration.

For the first time in Florida, Democrats used vote-by-mail more than Republicans. Democrats contend the election bill would make it harder for people, particularly disadvantaged Floridians, to voting.

The measure would expand the no solicitation zone around polling places and drop boxes to 150 feet. Within that area, people could not attempt to solicit votes or hand out items to voters. Election officials and volunteers could distribute items, including water.

That’s in contrast to bans recently signed into law in Georgia, which has draw opposition from corporations.

“This bill is not Georgia 2.0,” Baxley said.

The Senator followed through on a promise to remove a provision on cross-referencing wet signatures. That measure would have required that signatures match a signature on file from the last four years.

An amendment to the House version of the bill (HB 7041) on Monday, instead of removing the provision, pushed the signature window to eight years. If no usable signature is available in that time period, election officials could scan for older signatures.

During a meeting last week, Baxley brought the Senate package closer to the House version, which is now on its way to the House floor.

Initially Baxley intended to ban the use of mail-in ballot drop boxes, first used in Florida during the 2020 election cycle. However, he made the bill more palatable to voting rights advocates by preserving drop boxes.

The Ocala Republican still holds reservations about drop boxes. Someone could potentially light a flame and set ballots within a box on fire, he warned as an example of things going wrong.

“While I continue to have reservations about how they’re deployed and associated risk, our supervisors advocated very strongly for their continued use,” he said Thursday.

Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, the Spring Hill Republican sponsoring the House version, has supported the drop box proposal. He carried the law establishing drop boxes.

St. Petersburg Sen. Jeff Brandes is the only Republican senator who has opposed the bill. During the Tuesday committee meeting, he noted that former Republican Sen. Alan Hays, now the Supervisor of Elections for Lake County, strongly opposes the measure, arguing it would hurt the voting process.

Democratic Sen. Perry Thurson was continuing on that line of questioning Thursday when he asked whether a single elections supervisor backs the bill. During that questioning, Hays texted Bradenton Republican Sen. Jim Boyd to say, “I support the bill,” Boyd related.

One provision written by Sen. Gary Farmer, the Democratic Leader, and Sen. Debbie Mayfield, the Republican Leader, would prevent third-party candidates from switching their party affiliation at the last minute. That language was inspired by a developing story from the 2020 election in which former Sen. Frank Artiles enlisted a third-party candidate to spoil the election for an incumbent Democrat, according to law enforcement.

Baxley this week highlighted that measure as a display of his willingness to work across the aisle to improve the bill.

The House version doesn’t have that provision.

With a little more than a week left in Session, the House will likely take up its bill soon. Baxley told senators he’s not sure how the two chambers will close the gap between their measures.

“I don’t know the endgame. I know we’re in the middle of a journey here. I know the House bill is still different than our bill,” Baxley said. “How that will wind together, what ideas will prevail, what things we’ll run into on the way there, I don’t know, and it’s part of the exciting mystery of a great Democratic Republic.”

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