LADY LAKE — More than 60 protesters held up signs and American flags along U.S. Highway 441 in front of State Sen. Dennis Baxley’s office Saturday in Lady Lake.
Members of area Democratic groups were joined by non-partisan faith and voter advocacy organizations to protest several initiatives taken up by the state legislature.
One of the proposals — Senate Bill 90 — was introduced by Baxley. R-Ocala. The measure places new restrictions on vote-by-mail rules and would ban ballot drop-off boxes. Voters would have to renew absentee ballot requests annually instead of every four years.
Alan Harris, a Lake County official with the state Democratic party, said the changes were unnecessary.
“Everyone was crowing about how wonderful Florida was in terms of the election. We were the gold standard for the rest of the country,” Harris said. “So what did they do? Introduce SB90, which is anti everything that worked so well here in Florida.”
Many protesters were concerned about reduced access to voting by mail. They argue that the service is crucial for people with medical problems or who lack transportation. They point out that the 2020 election had an excellent turnout despite the pandemic, and that the new rules would suppress the vote.
“We want to get out the vote for the 18- to 40-year-old African-Americans who tend not to vote. We had really good turn out last year,” said Mae Hazelton, co-founder of All About the Ballots. “We want to increase voter turnout. We’re non-partisan but we want to be here to express that this is such an important thing for us.”
The bill is still working its way through committee and has advanced on a strictly partisan vote. Baxley has argued these changes are necessary to maintain secure elections, but many officials, including Alan Hays — Lake County’s election supervisor and a fellow Republican — strongly oppose the bill.
“When you’ve got 67 supervisors of elections, including Alan Hays, leading the pack against it, that should tell you how bad this bill is,” Harris said.
A second law, House Bill 1, includes controversial changes to rules handling protests. Supporters, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, argue the measure is only meant curtail violence and so-called rioting. Democrats and civil libertarians call the bill an attack on free speech and argue it will lead to peaceful protesters being arrested.
The Rev. Drew Willard, with the Interfaith Council of Lake County, said joining the protest was a matter of his Judeo-Christian values to make sure the “least of these” are heard.
“This is something that should part of our American ideals. Especially this concern about voter fraud — I equate voter suppression as a form of fraud,” said Willard.
The group was also protesting a third bill sponsored by Baxley. Senate Bill 86 would make sweeping changes to the Florida Bright Futures scholarship program by providing more financial aid to students who earn degrees in high-demand fields. It aims to encourage students to earn STEM degrees, which some argue are better positioned to lead to high wage jobs.
Zach Hussein, a junior at The Villages Charter School, was vehemently opposed to the idea.
“An educated society, regardless of what the education is, is a higher functioning, more productive society,” he said. “Its already hard enough to get the scholarship, imagine you get and they take it away because they don’t like what you do with your life.
Baxley has argued that he intended to create a “link between education and the real world in terms of career prospects and opportunity.”
Rose Fitzpatrick, head of the Greater Leesburg Democratic Club, said the struggle will continue, despite what she sees as new roadblocks to participating in government.
“They’re making it much more difficult,” she said. “And that’s not truly the American way. We’re gonna keep fighting until we have the true right to vote.”