Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Record on Voting Rights

Ron DeSantis standing before a podium that says "DeSantis for President" surrounded by cut out images of his signature, bill text of mutiple bills mentioned in the article, and a map of Florida.

On Wednesday, May 24, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, in a long expected move, announced that he would run for the Republican nomination for president in 2024. Over the past few years, DeSantis has sometimes been portrayed as a moderate, especially in contrast to former President Donald Trump, simply because he hasn’t agreed with Trump’s contention that the 2020 election was stolen. But when it comes to voting rights, DeSantis — a cofounder of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus — is no moderate. Throughout his time in the governor’s office, he’s been more than willing to restrict voting and indulge conspiratorial thinking about elections.

DeSantis has signed multiple bills that restrict the right to vote or endanger voters.

During his tenure as governor, DeSantis has signed multiple bills into law that restrict the right to vote or undermine American democracy. One bill even predates the current wave of voter suppression laws stirred up by Trump’s election lies. 

The same year DeSantis won the governor’s office, Florida voters approved Amendment 4, a measure intended to restore voting rights to an estimated 1 million Floridians with previous felony convictions. However, almost immediately upon taking office, DeSantis and Republican allies in the state Legislature moved to restrict the scope of the amendment.

In 2019, DeSantis signed Senate Bill 7066 into law. Designed to implement Amendment 4, the bill also requires all individuals with felony convictions to pay off all fines and fees imposed by the legal system before they would be eligible to vote again. S.B. 7066 prevented an estimated 774,000 Floridians from registering to vote, many of whom couldn’t afford to pay the fines. Additionally, Florida doesn’t systematically track how much people owe, often making it impossible to determine who is eligible to register.

A group of civil and voting rights organizations filed a lawsuit against S.B. 7066. While a district court ruled after trial that portions of this “pay-to-vote” system were unconstitutional, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated (meaning voided) this ruling. As a result, DeSantis successfully restricted the ability of hundreds of thousands of Floridians to vote.

Even if DeSantis hasn’t claimed the 2020 election was stolen, he’s been more than happy to support Republican efforts to restrict voting in the infamous election’s aftermath. On May 6, 2021, DeSantis signed the omnibus voter suppression law Senate Bill 90 into law. Among other provisions, the law bans anyone except poll workers from distributing food and water to voters waiting in line, cuts the period over which absentee ballot requests will be honored and shortens the time in which drop boxes may be used.

The law has already had a tangible impact on Florida voters. For example, under previous law, Floridians’ mail-in ballot requests were valid for four years. S.B. 90 shortened this period of validity to just two years, leading to the cancellation of thousands of mail-in ballot requests this year.

In response to S.B. 90, multiple civic organizations filed lawsuits against the law, arguing that it places an undue burden on the right to vote in violation of the U.S. Constitution. After a trial in January 2022, a district court judge agreed. He struck down some of the law’s most harmful provisions, concluding they are “intentionally discriminatory” against Black Floridians in violation of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and 14th and 15th Amendments and placed Florida on preclearance requirements for the next 10 years, meaning changes to voting rules need to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court. When asked about the ruling, DeSantis decried it as “performative partisanship.”

Florida officials appealed the ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which paused the decision while the appeal is being litigated. As a result, the previously blocked provisions were reinstated. As of now, the appeal is pending before the appellate court; oral argument was held on Sept. 15, 2022.

S.B. 90 was only just the start of Florida Republicans’ attack on voting. In 2022, GOP lawmakers passed, which then DeSantis signed, another restrictive voting bill: Senate Bill 524. The bill bans ranked choice voting, prohibits the use of private money to fund election administration and directed the Florida Department of State to develop a plan to require identifying information on mail-in ballots.

S.B. 524 also established, at DeSantis’ request, a special unit to investigate violations of election law and allegations of illegal voting. Advocates expressed concern that this Office of Election Crimes and Security could be used as a “tool to harass or intimidate civic-engagement organizations and voters.” This is despite the fact that actual voter fraud is vanishingly rare in American elections.

Based on what happened next, those advocates were right. In August 2022, DeSantis announced the arrests of 20 individuals for illegally voting, supposedly lending credence to Republican complaints about the security of our elections. But it quickly turned out that many of the individuals who were arrested sincerely thought they were eligible to vote — in many cases, they even received voter registration cards from DeSantis’ own administration. DeSantis used vulnerable voters essentially as a pawn for his political ambitions.

DeSantis’ stunt to charge individuals for illegally voting ran into a roadblock when judges dismissed the charges or local prosecutors declined to press forward. In response, the Florida Legislature passed Senate Bill 4B during a special session in February; DeSantis signed it into law on Feb. 15, expanding the jurisdiction of the Office of Statewide Prosecution to take over the prosecution of election crimes from local officials. Instead of local prosecutors, which may be appointed by Democrats, the bill allows Attorney General Ashley Moody (R), a close ally of DeSantis, to oversee the prosecution of charges brought by the Office of Election Crimes and Security.

Finally, during the 2023 regular session, the Florida Legislature advanced another omnibus elections bill. While containing many technical changes to Florida law, it also contains provisions that could directly harm voters. The law creates new restrictions on mail-in voting, strengthens list maintenance procedures that could purge eligible voters and imposes new limitations on third-party voter registration organizations. Voting groups warned that the burden placed on organizations could effectively gut community-based registration in the state.

DeSantis pushed through a congressional map that directly harmed Black voters.

During Florida’s redistricting last year, DeSantis made an unprecedented intervention in the process to eliminate a district that gave Black Floridians the opportunity to elect a representative of their choice to Congress. When Florida Republicans began to redraw the congressional map with 2020 census data, they all agreed to preserve the 5th Congressional District, which stretched from the state capital of Tallahassee to Jacksonville across northern Florida and was designed to give representation to the Black community in that part of the state. State House and Senate Republicans both agreed that the district was legally protected by Florida’s Fair Districts Amendment, which prohibits abridging a racial minority’s ability to participate in the political process.

DeSantis, however, unexpectedly weighed in and demanded that any new map eliminate the 5th Congressional District. He released his own map proposals and even paid for a consultant to fly to Tallahassee to advocate for his proposal. Ultimately, the Legislature passed a compromise plan, with two different maps. One map, the primary map, shrank the 5th Congressional District to just Jacksonville. The second map, a backup map in case the primary map was struck down by courts, maintained the 5th Congressional District in its current configuration. Despite that, DeSantis pledged to veto the proposal, which he did on March 29.

In the wake of his veto, DeSantis called a special session for April 19 to draw a new map. The Florida Legislature ended up approving DeSantis’ plan that dismantled the 5th Congressional District over the objections of Democrats.

This map led to a lawsuit and on May 11, 2022, a state trial court judge blocked the new configuration of the 5th Congressional District from being used during the 2022 elections. The judge found that the map likely violated the Fair District Amendments and ordered the map be replaced by a remedial map. Unfortunately, a Florida appellate court paused that decision, and DeSantis’ map was used in the midterm elections last year. The incumbent for the 5th Congressional District, Rep. Al Lawson (D), lost reelection and Black Floridians in north Florida lost their voice in Congress.

Time and time again, DeSantis has shown he’s no friend of voting rights or democracy.

DeSantis’ anti-voting actions extend beyond legislation and redistricting maps. His anti-democratic tendencies can be found in so many other aspects of his governorship.

Even though he has never stated that the 2020 election was stolen, he’s been all too happy to lend support to prominent election deniers. During the 2022 midterm elections, DeSantis actively campaigned for gubernatorial candidates Kari Lake (R-Ariz.) and Doug Mastriano (R-Penn.). And while he has avoided answering whether or not the election was rigged, he has expressed doubt that the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol qualifies as an insurrection.

DeSantis has threatened voting in other ways, too. When House Democrats first introduced the comprehensive voting rights legislation H.R. 1, the For the People Act, DeSantis vowed to sue to block it in the event it became law (unfortunately, it didn’t). During the 2022 midterm elections, the Florida Department of Justice refused to allow federal election monitors to enter polling places in Florida. In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian last year, DeSantis waived election rules in three Republican-leaning counties, but not Democratic Orange County that also saw significant damage.

Should DeSantis win the presidential nomination, some might welcome it since he didn’t actively try to overturn the results of a free and fair election. But when it comes to voting rights, DeSantis is no better than Trump.