TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a major rewrite of Florida’s elections law on Thursday, tightening rules around drop boxes and mail-in voting in the presidential battleground. Critics say the changes will make it harder for voters, particularly the elderly and people of color, to cast ballots.

It’s the latest victory in the nationwide push by Republicans to restrict access to the polls, which party leaders say is necessary to deter fraud. The campaign has been fueled by former President Donald Trump’s false claim that his reelection was stolen from him, an assertion widely repeated across the GOP. Florida’s Republican legislators passed this law — without a single Democratic vote — even though they acknowledged there were no signs of fraud in the state, which Trump won handily in November.

DeSantis, widely viewed as a potential presidential candidate, clearly saw the political advantage in fighting for what his party describes as “election integrity.” In an extraordinary move, he staged his bill-signing live on the Fox & Friends show, with no other media outlets allowed.

The morning’s event apparently came as a surprise to FOX News Channel. The network said Thursday that it had booked DeSantis’ appearance on its program “as an interview and not as a live bill signing. Neither the network, nor the show, requested or mandated the event be exclusive to Fox News Media entities.”

A spokesperson for the governor, Taryn Fenske, said later that the actual bill signing took place elsewhere, and that the event televised by FOX News was purely ceremonial, even if it was advertised as a bill signing.

This new law restricts when ballot drop boxes can be used, and who can collect ballots — and how many. It mandates that drop boxes must be guarded, and available only when elections offices and early voting sites are open. To protect against “ballot harvesting,” an electoral Good Samaritan can only collect and return the ballots of immediate family, and no more than two from unrelated people.

“Right now I have what we think is the strongest election integrity measures in the country,” the governor said as he signed it. “We’re not going to let political operatives go and get satchels of votes and dump them in some drop box.”

Elections supervisors across the state did not ask for the changes, warning that some of the new rules may prove cumbersome and expensive to implement. Voter advocates assailed the law as a blatant attempt to impede access to the polls so Republicans might retain an advantage.

“The legislation has a deliberate and disproportionate impact on elderly voters, voters with disabilities, students and communities of color. It’s a despicable attempt by a one party ruled legislature to choose who can vote in our state and who cannot. It’s undemocratic, unconstitutional, and un-American,” said Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

The league joined the Black Voters Matter Fund, the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans and others in assailing the new law in a federal lawsuit filed minutes after the signing. A separate federal suit filed in Tallahassee by the NAACP and Common Cause also says the law targets people who are Black, Latino or disabled.

“For far too long, Florida’s lawmakers and elected officials have created a vast array of hurdles that have made it more difficult for these and other voters to make their voices heard,” these groups said.

Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist, a former Florida governor who announced his challenge of DeSantis this week, tweeted, “This is the difference between @GovRonDeSantis and me. He locks out the public and caters to FOX News. When I was Governor, everyone was invited in — Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. And when I’m Governor again, this will be a Florida for all.”

Democrats acknowledge that the Florida law doesn’t appear to be as draconian as one one recently approved in Georgia, a flashpoint in this national debate. But both laws contain some similar provisions.

In addition to similar drop box rules, the Florida law also extends a no-influence zone to 150 feet (50 meters) from 100 feet around polling places, which could prevent people from supplying food and water to people waiting in line. And elections officials would have to let candidates and other observers witness some key election night moments in the ballot-handling process. Any violations could prompt hefty fines of up to $25,000.

The Florida law also requires that a voter changing registration data provide an identifying number, possibly a driver’s license number or a partial Social Security Number, which advocates say could add a layer of inconvenience and keep people from being able to vote.

The new law also requires voters who want an absentee ballot to apply for one every election cycle. Republicans had initially proposed making this retroactive, which would have immediately erased the Democratic advantage, but they backed off that move in the final version.

Other more severe provisions put forward by some Republicans — such as banning drop boxes outright and preventing the use of the U.S. Postal Service for returning completed ballots — also didn’t make it into the law.

Over the years, Democrats and other voter rights groups have sought to simplify the ritual of voting, including automatic voter registration when applying for a driver’s license. More recently, they have advocated for automatic access to voting by mail. Concerned that the pandemic would keep people from voting, Democrats urged people to vote early and through the mail last year, even as Trump questioned mail-in balloting.

The result: a record 4.9 million Floridians voted by mail in 2020, and Democrats outvoted Republicans by mail for the first time in years, marking a 680,000-ballot advantage. The new law seeks to erase that.

Surrounded by lawmakers, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the end of a legislative session, Friday, April 30, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Surrounded by lawmakers, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the end of a legislative session, Friday, April 30, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

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