U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) took to the Senate floor today to blast the state of Florida’s refusal to accept more than $19 million in federal funds to enhance the security of its voting equipment before the upcoming November elections.
“When you consider the risk and what Russia did, that the intelligence community all agree it did to us in the last election, why in the world would the state of Florida not apply for any of the $19 million set aside for our state?” Nelson said.
The funding was made available to states as part of a government spending bill Congress passed in March. That bill set aside more than $380 million to help state election officials strengthen their election security and update their election equipment. Of that $380 million that would be available to states, $19.2 million was specifically set aside for Florida.
Yet, despite an announcement today by the governor of Florida that he was directing Florida’s Secretary of State to start drawing down the federal funds, Florida has not done so. In fact, according to published news reports, Florida’s Secretary of State said recently that he doesn’t plan to make any of the federal funding available to local counties before the upcoming election.
“While at least a dozen of other states have taken advantage by applying for and receiving the funding to help them protect their systems from Russian intrusion, my state of Florida hasn’t even applied for one single dollar of the $19 million set aside for Florida. Not one,” Nelson said.
Following is a transcript of Nelson’s remarks on the Senate floor:
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson
Remarks on the Senate floor
May 23, 2018
Sen. Nelson: Madam president, the right to vote is one of the most precious rights that we have here in America. How we protect it is so cherished and it’s cherished by a lot of people all over the world that don’t get a chance to exercise that right.
Our constitutional foundation is built on a process of free and fair and unfettered elections. Well, what happened in this country two years ago put a crack in that foundation and it started to sow the seeds of doubt that if gone unchecked, could undermine our entire democracy.
After painstaking analyses by the intelligence community, we know complete agreement in the intelligence community, unanimous in the I.C., we know that Russia interfered in our 2016 election. And we know that Russia continues to meddle in the elections of not only our country now but in other countries around the world. We saw that in the elections in Europe last year.
Fortunately, what they tried in France backfired on them, and they didn’t get their candidate to win. We also know that if we don’t act now, they’re likely going to continue this interference and the election here in this country is coming up in just a few months.
So the threat that we face today from Russia meddling in our elections and attempting to undermine our democracy, it’s really one of the greatest threats that we face. Congress recognizes this threat, and we have taken action to protect that vote, but none of it matters if the states, the respective states won’t work with us and take this threat seriously.
So last March we passed a bill here that authorized $380 million to help states’ elections officials strengthen their election security and update their election equipment. Now, $19 million of that total, that total of $380 million for the country, $19 million of it was set aside for my state, the state of Florida. And while at least a dozen of other states have taken advantage by applying for and receiving the funding to help them protect therapy systems better from Russian intrusion, my state of Florida hasn’t even applied for one single dollar of the $19 million set aside for Florida. Not one.
In fact, the government of Florida through Florida’s secretary of state said recently that he’s not planning to apply for any funding to improve security during the upcoming November election. Obviously, when you consider the risk and what Russia did that the intelligence community all agree did to us in the last election, why in the world would the state of Florida not apply for any of the $19 million set aside for our state?
So we know that Russia had already intruded into the election mechanism and records of 21 states. The state of Florida was one of those states. And although we don’t know what kind of interference the Russians are going to try in this upcoming November, we do know that Russian president Vladimir Putin having interfered in 2016 and causing so much chaos and, therefore, attacking the very foundation of our constitutional democracy is likely to do it again.
So why wouldn’t the government of the state of Florida apply for $19 million of funds set aside for Florida to upgrade and protect our election system? We know we’re not the only country that has been attacked. According to the U.S. Intelligence community, he obviously is going to continue this so we better get ready. And that’s why we have such a heavy responsibility to defend America from these kinds of attacks.
And to defend our process of free and fair and unfettered elections. We need to rebuild trust in our elections and, at the same time, we need to ensure that every citizen who wants to exercise their right to vote has the confidence that their vote can be exercised. It also can be counted, and it can be counted as they intended it to count. Well, remember this goes back to 1965.
Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to protect the right of every citizen to vote. But in a 5-4 supreme court decision, it declared that part of that law was outdated, and it removed much-needed voter protections that we’ve come to rely on for minorities, and we’ve come to rely on it for the last half-century.
And part of that supreme court decision struck down part of the law as it applied to protecting minorities in certain counties in the state of Florida. The justices voted to strike down that important part of the voting rights act on a 5-4 decision because they said it was outdated because we no longer have the blatant voter suppression tactics that we once did years and decades ago. Madam president, I disagree.
We’ve seen a lot of voter suppression. Just take since the 2010 election, we’ve seen a number of states, including my state of Florida, approve voting restrictions targeted directly at reducing turnout among young, low income and minority voters. Why? Because they traditionally support one particular party. In 2011, for example, the Florida legislature and state officials and the governor of Florida reduced the number of early voting days in Florida, including canceling the Sunday as an early voting date of the Sunday before the Tuesday elections.
And it’s not a coincidence that we find in the use of early voting days — particularly on weekends but particularly on that Sunday before the Tuesday election when people have now become sensitive and recognize that there’s about to be election day, particularly minority voters — African Americans as well as hispanics — in Florida took advantage of voting when they did not have to go to work. You heard the term “Souls to the polls.” So often many church members after church on Sunday would go to the polls.
And so they made voting more difficult for people, also who had moved to a different county. It became more difficult, even though we have a very mobile population moving within a state , and they also made it more difficult for young people, particularly college students, who changed their address because they moved and wanted to vote in the town where the university was but that their identification often was their driver’s license, and it showed their parents’ residence. Again making it more difficult instead of making it easier to vote.
And the state of Florida, they subjected voter registration groups, like the League of Women Voters that had been registering voters for three-quarters of a century, suddenly they subjected them to penalties and fines if they didn’t turn it in, the signatures, within a short period of time, which was impossible if you got the signatures over a weekend, and knit-picking on penalties and fines on some small mistake when they were trying to help someone register to vote.
Happily, the League of Women Voters took that to federal court, and the federal judge threw that law out as unconstitutional. But what happened, by the time of that decision, it was right before the election, and lo and behold the League of Women Voters had lost a year and a half of voter registration.
In 2014, an elections official — now, you can’t believe this. In Miami-Dade, which was coincidentally one of the more democratic counties in the state , a Miami-Dade elections official closed restrooms to voters who were waiting in line at the polling sites. As a matter of fact, there was so much chaos in one previous election, the election of 2012, that lines were upwards of seven hours long.
I’ll never forget the woman who was a century old — 100 years — everybody kept bringing her a chair, bringing her water. Well, some of those waiting in lines didn’t have the opportunity to go to the restroom yet, despite voting hours and hours.
And that same election cycle, 2014, the state’s top election official told a local elections supervisor not to allow voters to submit absentee ballots at remote dropoff sites, ordering that that elections official, that there could only be one site. That supervisor of elections, by the way, told the state of Florida to go take a hike, that they had a way of securing the ballots by dropping it in several different sites that were formally approved.
And then the state of Florida denied a request from the city of Gainesville to use a University of Florida campus building for early voting, a move seen by some as a direct assault on student voting. Now, can you believe that? We’re going to order the state of Florida government, through the secretary of state, is going to order the university of Florida not to allow the student center on campus to be a place of convenience for students to cast an early vote. And that order has stood. It stood — instead of making it easier for people to vote, making it harder. And too often here we have let these things go.
Well, this senator is not letting it go because the League of Women Voters in Florida has now taken the government of the state of Florida in to federal court on behalf of students at the University of Florida as well as Florida State, saying that you arbitrarily saying we cannot vote in a convenient place on campus in a public building, government-owned public building on campus, that you cannot order us that we cannot use that.
In anticipation, this court case of this coming November’s elections. So, too often we find ourselves divided on these issues of party politics, but that shouldn’t be the case. There should be no disagreement when it comes to protecting the right to vote and making it easier, not harder, for people to vote. Why? Because we ought to be Americans first, not partisans first. We should be Americans first. And the state of Florida should get its act in order to let the people vote. Madam president, I yield the floor.