Professors’ reports target elections law

In this Oct. 15, 2014, file photo, University of Florida President-elect W. Kent Fuchs speaks during a press conference at Emerson Alumni Hall in Gainesville. [Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun via AP]
In expert reports submitted to a federal judge, political science professors embroiled in a controversy with the University of Florida harshly criticized a new state elections law that makes it harder for voters to cast ballots by mail, saying the changes will have a disparately negative impact on Black, Hispanic and disabled voters.

The reports were filed on behalf of plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law (SB 90), championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and approved by the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature this spring.

In one of the reports, for example, University of Florida professor Sharon Austin said the new law is a backlash against Black and Hispanic voters’ increased use of early voting and vote-by-mail in the 2020 general election.

“SB 90 is yet another attempt to disenfranchise Black and Hispanic voters so that they will not be able to elect their preferred representatives,” she argued.

Groups challenging the law hired Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith, who is chairman of the university’s political science department, to testify as experts. But UF administrators initially rejected the professors’ requests to work for the groups, saying it would be “adverse” to the university’s interests to aid the challenge to the law.

A national outcry over the school’s attempts to silence the faculty members led UF President Kent Fuchs to grant permission to the professors to testify as experts and get paid. Fuchs also set up a task force to explore the issue. The tenured professors and three others have filed a separate lawsuit challenging the policy that gives the school discretion in blocking faculty members from testifying against the state.

According to court documents filed last week, each of the three political science professors are being paid $450 an hour to serve as experts in the elections lawsuit filed by groups including Florida Rising Together, Hispanic Federation and Equal Ground Education Fund.

The law, in part, set new restrictions on the availability and use of drop boxes, where people can drop off vote-by-mail ballots. Under the law, supervisors of elections must have the boxes staffed at all times and can only use the boxes during early voting hours and at early voting sites. Supervisors who violate the requirement face $25,000 fines.

The drop-box restrictions are “directed at a practice that was used to an unprecedented degree by minority voters” in the 2020 general election, Smith wrote in a report filed in the lawsuit.

The drop-box limits “will curtail in whole or in part 122” drop boxes deployed by supervisors of elections in last year’s general election and “decrease the opportunities of tens of thousands of voters across the state to return their mail ballots,” he found.

Posted in News, Politics, State

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