As a pastor, I believe language about sacred duties belongs in houses of worship, so I won’t invoke that terminology here. But I will say that in this nation we all have a profound civic duty to vote as part of our social compact.
When too many of us fail to vote, our nation teeters toward extremism. Studies of modern democracies draw a clear connection between voter turnout and responsive government, wherever the election results land on the political spectrum. Responsive government is vital to prosperous markets and healthy communities.
Yet, Gov. Ron DeSantis and his allies in Tallahassee have been determined to make it harder to vote in our state. They have pushed a blatant voter suppression bill through both houses of the Florida Legislature. This is a raw display of political power, and a government unresponsive to large segments of our society, in particular communities of color. How does that make Florida prosperous and healthy? It doesn’t. Reducing voter turnout is a ploy to retain the reins of political power over and against the general desire of the people.
Under current Florida law, vote-by-mail registration is good for at least two election cycles. SB 90, which passed the Senate on April 26, will cut that period in half, meaning a Floridian who wants to vote by mail will have to send in a request each election cycle. Some voters, almost certainly, will be kept from voting. The bill will also create much more work for county elections officials and cost Florida taxpayers many millions of dollars unnecessarily.
SB 90 will greatly curtail the use of ballot drop boxes, which have proved to be both secure and convenient. It also makes it a crime to give food or water to anyone waiting in line to vote – or even just say hello to a fellow voter at the polls, if you can imagine that. It seems that consideration and the Golden Rule are not guiding principles in Tallahassee these days.
After the Bush vs. Gore election debacle in 2000, Florida became a leader in the use of vote by mail. The COVID-19 pandemic spurred the use of mail-in ballots even more. More than 4.8 million people voted by mail in the 2020 general election. Of those, 1.5 million used secure drop boxes. This shortened lines at the polls and made social distancing easier during the pandemic. Afterwards, no one—including Laurel Lee, the GOP secretary of state who oversees elections in Florida—could point to instances of fraud.
Even when the global pandemic passes, vote-by-mail should remain an essential option for voting. It provides flexibility for all of us - working voters, parents, and voters with disabilities--to conveniently, safely, and securely participate in our democracy. Given our aging population, it is particularly convenient and often critical for seniors. So why are Gov. DeSantis and his allies in the Legislature trying to make it harder for Floridians to vote by mail?
They say they are afraid of fraud. But they have admitted there is no fraud, which leaves only one possible motive: they are afraid of voters.
We need more people voting, not fewer. We need a government that is representative and responsive to people of all races and social classes. We can’t have a government that only appeases special interests and business lobbies, while allowing half of all households in Florida to languish without safeguards for wages, housing, healthcare, quality education, and a clean environment. There are bona fide approaches from both conservative and liberal schools of thought for addressing these persistent issues in Florida. We need to hear those ideas. We need to hear legitimate appeals to voters and not schemes to keep people from voting in order to increase your chance of winning.
Our civic duty is to vote. When we citizens take this duty seriously, we participate in the wellbeing of our communities. We teach our children the value of belonging and taking ownership for political outcomes. We craft cities where quality of life drives our commerce, education, entertainment, and yes even religion.
Our democracy, and our society, cannot continue to exist without respect for the right to vote. Every voter should find it not just shameful but dangerous when elected officials interfere with access to voting. SB 90 deserves to be scuttled because it disparages and endangers all of us.
The Rev. Dr. Russell L. Meyer is executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, representing the historic Protestant and Black churches in Florida since 1947.