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Suit Seeks to Preserve Ballot Images

July 2nd, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

A new lawsuit seeks to force all of the state’s elections supervisors to keep digital images created from paper ballots, but some supervisors worry the coming election is already complicated enough in this age of COVID.

Every voting machine in Florida is already capable of capturing digital images of the paper ballot inserted by voters, but the settings make the capture optional.

“This is an important check on the paper ballots,” said State Representative Joe Geller.

Geller is one of the people suing.

“If the ballots are walk away, or for that matter, paper ballots are pretty easy to alter,” said Geller.

He points to his own county.

It misplaced over 2,000 paper ballots in 2018.

He calls the digital images a trusted backup.

“Most people want the results to be clear, understandable, and verifiable. So this is not in our opinion, its not partisan,” said Geller.

Images must be kept for at least 22 months, the same as paper ballots.

For counties with older machines there could be an increased cost.

Leon County Supervisor Mark Earley points out the majority of machines in Florida are older and would get slower if they have to image capture.

“If it’s going to be slower per voter per machine, then you need more machines to process the same number of voters. This fall given COVID and social distancing and all that, you know, we are already concerned about having lines form because we may using fewer polling places, so to me, this is a bad time for this lawsuit,” said Earley.

At least 27 counties are already keeping the images.

The lawsuit seeks an expedited hearing and a declaratory judgement in time for the August 18th primary.

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Felons’ Voting Rights Once Again Uncertain

July 2nd, 2020 by Jake Stofan

An estimated 770,000 felons too poor to pay their legal financial obligations believed they’d be allowed to vote in the upcoming elections after a federal court found the state could not block them from registering to vote.

But a federal appellate court has put that ruling on hold, once again blocking them from at least the August primary.

“It throws the rights of hundreds of thousands of Floridians into flux and chaos surrounding election rights is never a good thing,” said Mark Gaber, and Attorney with the Campaign Legal Center, which is representing plaintiffs in the case.

Florida elections are often decided by a few thousand votes so the outcome of this case could have implications for the November election.

The requirement for felons to pay fines, fees and restitution before they can regain the right to vote was put in place by the Legislature after voters approved Amendment 4 in 2018.

Sponsor Representative James Grant asserts the law reflects the wording of the amendment itself.

“The amendment specifically reads, ‘All terms of sentence including probation and parole’,” said Grant.

There has been speculation that felons impacted by the financial requirements are more likely to vote blue.

But Democratic strategist Steve Schale is skeptical.

“If you look at the population of felons, they actually line up pretty close both politically, ideologically as well as racially with the State of Florida,” said Schale.

And Grant said the law was not crafted with party in mind.

“My only job was to implement, enact the constitutional amendment exactly as it was presented to get on the ballot, exactly as it was presented to the voters and accept the political ramifications as they may be,” said Grant.

The appellate court won’t even hear the case after registration closes for the Primary.

But Gaber expects the case to be expedited.

“We’re hopeful that the 11th Circuit will move quickly to issue a full ruling on the merits and then if the Supreme Court needs to step in then that could happen before the November election,” said Gaber.

Registration for the General election closes October 5th.

Without a decision prior to that, indigent felons will be effectively barred from voting one more cycle.

The ACLU, one of the parties suing to strip the financial requirements from the law, told us in a statement a previous ruling by the appellate court is still valid.

However, that ruling only applies to the 17 plaintiffs named in the case, allowing them to vote despite having outstanding fines and fees.

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Eviction Moratorium Extended

July 1st, 2020 by Jake Stofan

People behind on their rent or mortgages have another month to scrape together what they owe before facing eviction.

Governor Ron Desantis signed the executive order extending eviction moratoriums until August first was filed at 8:10 pm Tuesday, less than four hours before it was set to expire.

Florida Democrats had asked for the extension.

“In order to make sure this pandemic doesn’t impact people’s security to have a place to live, the moratoriums are extremely essential,” said State Senator Audrey Gibson.

But property owners were not happy.

One manager told us that he expected a race to the courthouse, accusing some renters of using the moratorium to avoid paying rent even though they were still working.

Sen. Gary Farmer believes banks need to start looking out for landlords.

“I do think landlords need some relief with regard to any mortgages them may have, or loans they may have. Because they have to make payments perhaps as well,” said Farmer.

The extension is important because even though A total of $395 million in state and federal funding is being made available to help people with rent and mortgages, it has not yet started to flow.

”This money is so critical to our local communities,” said Cragin Mosteller with the Florida Association of Counties.

Mosteller explained each county will have its own set of rules on disbursement.

“Each county is going to have to make a decision. It’s an important decision on how quickly to get that money out there,” said Mosteller.

And the Florida Housing Finance Corporation said it is still working on a distribution formula that will combine population and unemployment rate.

Some money is expected to be disbursed in July.

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Parental Consent Now Required For Minors Seeking Abortions

July 1st, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Starting Wednesday, teens under the age of 18 will need a parent’s consent is they wish to have an abortion.

The legislation was signed Tuesday night by Governor Ron DeSantis, buta recent US Supreme Court ruling is giving pro-choice groups hope they can successfully challenge the law in court.

Minors seeking an abortion already had to notify their parents.

Now they’ll need their permission.

“At the very least, this common sense law raises the standard [for] an abortion as is required in almost every other medical procedure,” said Ingrid Delgado with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The new law is nearly identical to one struck down by the Florida Supreme Court three decades ago.

This time, lawmakers beefed up an avenue to bypass the consent requirement through the courts for minors who fear retaliation from their guardian.

“Things like providing counsel to indigent minors and establishing a record that can be appealed in case a waiver is denied,” said Delgado.

Pro-choice groups like Planned Parenthood have likened the new law to a trojan horse, meant to test how far the newly conservative leaning state supreme court will allow lawmakers to restrict access to abortion.

But pro-choice advocates are hopeful a US Supreme Court ruling Monday, striking down a Louisiana law that would have restricted abortion access, will send a clear message to those in power.

“The law was a different law. The intent was exactly the same… and what we saw the Supreme Court say was that courts and state legislatures need to stop trying to block access to essential health care like abortion,” said Stephanie Fraim, Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida President.

The US Supreme Court ruling doesn’t directly impact Florida’s new law, nor similar laws on the books in 21 other states.

The real test will be whether the changes to the judicial bypass option are enough to satisfy the privacy concerns that led the state supreme court to strike down the previous version of the law.

No suits have been filed against the law yet, but Planned Parenthood tells us all options are on the table.

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Dems Demand Statewide Mask Order

July 1st, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

In a virtual press conference Wednesday, Florida Democrats said two South Florida hospitals have stopped accepting patients for elective procedures as the number of coronavirus hospitalizations have increased.

They’re calling on the Governor to ensure access to free testing for all Floridians and say it’s time for the Governor to issue a statewide mask mandate.

“It’s become a political statement rather than a necessary health precaution as it should be. We wear masks to protect others. You wear a mask to protect me, I wear a mask to protect you. This needs to be about ‘we’ not ‘me’ and this is not a political statement, this is about the health of Floridians,” said State Senator Gary Farmer.

The Governor has so far come out in opposition of a mandatory face mask order, but multiple counties have taken it upon themselves to issue their own local ordinances.

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Water Quality Projects Hit Hard by Vetoes

July 1st, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Environmental spending came out strong even after the Governor’s vetoes.

$100 million for Florida Forever and $372 million for the everglades survived the Governor’s self described ‘Red Wedding’ that totaled more than $1 billion in cuts.

But Aliki Moncrief with Florida Conservation Voters noted water quality projects weren’t quite so lucky.

$48 million didn’t make the cut.

“So cutting just short of $50 million in water projects that are there to upgrade those aging systems, help communities transition from septic to sewer, you know those are really important projects that I don’t think we can afford to wait on in many cases,” said Moncrief.

In all $83 million in environmental spending was cut from the budget.

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Eviction Moratorium Down to the Wire

June 30th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The Governor’s moratorium on evictions expires Wednesday, and thousands could soon face being removed from their homes.

A handful of activists posted an eviction notice outside the Governor’s Mansion.

“We pay Governor DeSantis to be in this house. Why don’t you like try to keep us in our house?” said Trish Brown with the Florida Housing Justice Alliance.

Brown told us she and her family have faced a housing crisis for years.

“Being on your last leg when it comes down to money. Having bills crash down on you with no way to breathe,” said Brown.

The Florida Housing Justice Alliance counts as many as 2,600 evictions cued up and ready to start moving through the courts.

The Governor was asked Tuesday afternoon at a South Florida news conference if he would be extending the midnight expiration of the eviction moratorium.

He didn’t answer.

On Monday, the Governor touted the $250 million in CARES Act funding.

“Across the state to help families meet housing needs,” said DeSantis.

$145 million in state funds are also being released to help people pay rent.

”The two-fifty from the CARES Act wasn’t enough. The money from the State Legislature wasn’t enough,” said Lakey Love with the alliance.

Judy Tanzosh became unemployed in March.

If not for help from her 70-year-old mother, she claims she would be out on the street.

“It’s a pretty bad feeling to have to go to your parents and ask them for financial help. It’s kind of embarrassing,” said Tanzosh.

The eviction moratorium was extended hours before it expired June 1st.

Democrats in the Florida Senate are asking it be extended another month.

The Florida Apartment Association, which represents landlords big and small does not favor moratoriums, asserts cash assistance for renters and landlords is more equitable for everyone.

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Antisemitism Double Standard

June 29th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Over the last three weeks, two Student Senators at Florida State University have come under fire.

The Student Senate at Florida State voted to remove its President on June 5th for disparaging remarks about Black Lives Matter.

Now his replacement is under fire for antisemitic beliefs.

FSU’s Student Senate President Ahmad Daraldik grew up in Palestine

He’s under fire for likening Israel to Nazi Germany.

This was his defense.

“And will not allow racist Israeli policies to commit those same crimes against my people,” said Daraldik in a video posted on YouTube.

And his words may be the first test of antisemitic legislation approved last year and signed in Israel.

“What it simply says is that Anti Semitic conduct, speech, behaviors, etcetera, have to be treated in an identical manner as racist speech and conduct,” said Rep. Randy Fine, the sponsor of the legislation.

In an email, FSU said it investigates all complaints, and that student conduct and disciplinary matters are protected by federal and state privacy laws.

The Student Senate voted 19-16 last week to remove Daraldik, but the vote fell short of the needed two-thirds majority.

It will vote again Tuesday.

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Governor Announces $250 Million to Help Pay Rent and Mortgages

June 26th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

2,600 Floridians would already be facing eviction if not for the moratorium put in place by the Governor.

That moratorium is set to expire this coming Wednesday, but there is some hope for optimism.

Governor Ron DeSantis is making 250 million CARES Act dollars available to help struggling Floridians pay rents and mortgages.

It’s something the Florida Apartment Association has been urging for weeks.

“Obviously things are being stretched thin right now and so this is going to bring both residents as well as housing providers the relief that they need,” said Amanda Gill with FAA.

$120 million will go towards affordable housing.

That will be administered by the Florida Housing Finance Corporation.

“We’ll be working directly with their developer or landlords to square up their accounts with them,” said FHFC Executive Director Trey Price.

Counties will share an additional $120 million to help those who aren’t in affordable house, but are still struggling.

“There’s not enough affordable housing in Florida. So there are a lot of folks in market rate housing who are paying a good percentage of their monthly income to rent or mortgage,” said Price.

$2 million of the $250 million will go towards staffing and assistance for special needs housing.

The remaining $8 million will be used for anticipated administrative costs.

While the additional funds will provide some relief, the money won’t likely start flowing until July, which is why some groups are calling on the Governor to extend his eviction moratorium for an additional three months.

But the Apartment Association believes programs like this one, not moratoriums, are the best way to help landlords and their tenants cover bills.

“We’ve already seen across the state, several local governments have established rental relief funds and that has made a huge impact both with our members as well as residents being able to pay their rent,” said Gill.

We reached out to the Governor’s Office and asked whether he intends to extend the eviction moratorium and if so for how long.

We were told that decision is still under review.

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Rule Breaking Leads to Closure

June 26th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida bars were allowed to reopen June 5th, three weeks ago Friday, but after the spike in cases, they are now open only for carryout.

Florida restaurants remain open with 50 percent capacity, for now at least.

The announcement that bars were off limits for on site consumption came via tweet, less than an hour after the state announced nearly 9,000 new cases.

A video from a panhandle bar this past weekend shows a large crowd of people dancing, packed in the center of the room.

Bars were supposed to be operating at 50 percent and making room for social distancing, but many broke the rule.

“This is a self inflicted wound in many cases. So the offenders who have not paid attention to the guidelines have caused this to happen,” said Carol Dover, President of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried renewed her call for a statewide mask order, calling the bar closing order too little too late.

“We saw almost 9,000 cases today and that’s seven times higher than when we were first reopening,” said Fried.

The effective closing is another blow for the state’s economy.

May tax collections released Friday showed revenue down $700 million from estimates.

Still, it was a slight improvement from April.

The restaurant association told us the Governor was preparing to loosen restrictions in July until the current spike in cases forced his hand to shut bars.

Potentially restaurants too if the trend continues.

So the association is warning its members, follow the rules or else.

“If they don’t adhere, If they don’t hear what he is saying now, restaurants are next, and I got that straight from them. So we better pay attention. It’s 50 percent and not every table next to each other,” said Dover.

A capital city bar owner told us the order will only send his customers to the restaurant next door, creating a recipe for bankruptcy.

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Child Support Collections a Mixed Bag

June 25th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Some Florida children are losing out on child support due to the pandemic, but there is a bright side to the equation.

The Women’s Law Group is seeing an uptick in calls from parents.

“We’ve seen an increase in how many people are now receiving their child support payments they are supposed to be receiving by court order,” said Lara Davis, an attorney with the group.

Statistics provided by the Florida Department of Revenue show for the three month period after the state closed down, custodial parents saw a drop in state collected payments of over $21 million.

And the amount collected from parents who voluntarily send checks through DOR dropped $14.2 million.

“A lot of people are struggling if they not getting unemployment, if they have the kind of job that doesn’t qualify for that, and plus they’re not getting their child support. It’s difficult for a lot of parents out there,” said Davis.

There is an upside to the story.

Kids and child support are getting an $8 million dollar boost.

That’s because the state gets to keep 40 percent of unemployment checks when there is a past due amount.

But an even bigger boost for kids has been the Federal stimulus checks flagged for back child support.

In the three months after the pandemic began, a whopping $145 million was withheld from Florida bound stimulus checks for kids.

So even with the lack of some payments, payments are up $100 million over the three month period compared to last year.

But Davis said the pandemic has created another worry for parents, they fear for their kids’ safety while at the other parent’s house.

“They’re not restricting one parent because the other parent feels they are not being careful enough,” said Davis.

And Davis said an uptick in divorces since the beginning of the pandemic could lead to more kids needing child support in the near future.

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VISIT FLORIDA Seeks Post-Pandemic Budget Boost

June 25th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s tourism marketing agency is hoping lawmakers will boost its funding to help offset the economic damage cause by the pandemic.

The request is going to be a hard sell with state revenues down and a House Speaker highly critical of the agency’s effectiveness.

VISIT FLORIDA received $50 million from the Legislature for the upcoming fiscal year, largely due to fears the pandemic could wreak havoc on the tourism industry.

It did.

Hotel revenues alone are down $3.8 billion since March 1st.

“Orlando, when I was down there, was a ghost town, which was frightening,” said Carol Dover, President of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Dover is also a VISIT FLORIDA board member.

She said $50 million for marketing the state simply isn’t enough.

“I mean a $50 million budget even in a good year is lean,” said Dover.

She hopes when the Legislature returns, whether in a special session or next year, funding for VISIT FLORIDA will be raised to $100 million.

But the proposition will be a hard sell in the Florida House.

Current House Speaker Jose Oliva has been no friend to the agency and would have likely killed it during the 2020 session if not for the pandemic.

But House Budget Chair Travis Cummings believes the incoming House Speaker may see things differently.

“He comes from the Tampa region, so to speak, and St. Pete where tourism is obviously critical,” said Cummings.

We asked Speaker Designate Chris Sprowls for his take on VISIT FLORIDA spending.

He responded, “It’s too early to speculate on the next budget cycle while we wait for the ultimate outcome on this budget.”

But Dover points out other states are already boosting their marketing agencies.

She fears if Florida doesn’t do the same, it will be at a competitive disadvantage.

“We have a lot to advertise, but we have got to do it and do it in a manner that makes customers feel safe,” said Dover.

And with the state making national headlines for record daily cases numbers, indications are things may get worse for the tourism industry before they get better.

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Fraternity Death Under Investigation

June 24th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida State Police were called at 6:30 Wednesday morning to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity near the main gate of Flordia State University.

They discovered the body of 21-year-old Sam Stone.

Stone was a recent graduate of FSU.

He attended high school in Tampa and was set to be deployed to Afghanistan this coming October.

He would have turned 22 in two weeks.

”Obviously it’s been a terrible morning,” said Sigma Alpha Epsilon Vice President Colton Williams. “He was a charismatic leader. His whole aura was really involved around his ability to lead and get people to follow. He was just incredibly gifted with just so many traits that I think his family would be so proud of him for.”

Williams recalled one example, where he and Stone were driving.

Stone asked him to pull over and hopped out of the car and went to the rescue of an elderly man having trouble with his walker.

A person on scene Wednesday who appeared to be an advisor to the fraternity told us alcohol was involved, but hazing was not part of today’s death.

“Oh yet another fraternity death, when in reality this was just a very sad accident that I’m heart broken about,” said Williams.

“University records show Sigma Alpha Epsilon was suspended just a month into last fall’s semester for alcohol violations.

That suspension ended at the start of the spring semester.

The fraternity sits next to the former Pi Kappa Phi House, the fraternity involved in the 2017 hazing death of Andrew Coffey.

David Bianchi is the Coffey family’s attorney.

“I have spoken to the Coffey’s and they are sickened by it. It’s just another tradgey as far as they are concerned,” said Bianchi.

This is the second tragedy to strike the fraternity in recent weeks.

In May, Lance Mercy was killed in a car accident while visiting family in Maryland.

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Lawsuit Asserts Mask Ordinance Violates Privacy Rights

June 24th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The county surrounding the state’s capital city is the latest jurisdiction to mandate face masks for indoor public places, but a lawsuit is already planned that could set a precedent for challenging similar orders around the state.

Starting at midnight people entering businesses in the state’s capital will be required to wear a face mask or face fines between $50 and $250.

Assistant constitutional law professor Michael Morley at Florida State University believes the policy is inline with U.S. Supreme Court precedents

“These are all within the traditionally accepted scope of state authority,” said Morley.

But Leon County Republican Party Chair Evan Power said the lawsuit he intends to file will make a privacy argument, because the ordinance exempts people with certain health issues from wearing a mask.

“You’re going to start questioning whether people have disabilities or not have disabilities and it opens that privacy part up,” said Power.

Florida does have heightened privacy protections embedded in the State Constitution, but Morley is skeptical a court would strike the ordinance down.

“Given that we’re dealing with an infectious disease, measures to try to stop its spread would likely survive any type of state constitutional challenge,” said Morley.

If successful, the suit filed in Leon County could be used as a blueprint for challenging similar ordinances across the state.

But Dr. Ron Saff, who has advocated for a statewide mask mandate on behalf of Physicians for Social Responsibility, hopes that isn’t the case.

“They’re saying that their right not to wear a mask is more important than someone’s right to not catch a potentially fatal disease,” said Saff.

Unclear is whether the ordinance passed by the county will apply to the grounds of the State Capitol.

The Governor does not typically wear a mask during press briefings at the Capitol and has consistently rejected the idea of issuing a statewide mask order, citing concerns over equal enforcement.

A press contact for the Governor told us staff will review the ordinance once it’s published.

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Secretary of State Defends Governor’s Election Order

June 23rd, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s Elections Supervisors didn’t get everything they wanted to make voting easier during the pandemic, but the Secretary of State is defending the decision not to allow more time for mail and early voting because supervisors got help another way.

Instead of more time to send out and count mail ballots, and more days of early voting, Secretary of State Laurel Lee said the Governor dealt with the underlying problem supervisors were trying to solve, a lack of poll workers and polling places.

“By using state workers and encouraging state workers to serve, we have a new field of potential elections workers. And the same can be said about using our schools as precinct locations,” said Lee.

But Leon Supervisor Mark Earley tells us he does not believe schools will become polling places.

“We tried to stay out of the schools for many reasons. Security issues, and certainly now, with the pandemic, I don’t want to get into the schools now,” said Earley.

During a speech to the Economic Club of Florida, Lee sought to distance Florida from claims coming from the President about the Security of mail voting.

“The voter has an opportunity to come in and say, yes, that is my ballot,” said Lee.

An she told the audience that attacks on the voting infrastructure are a daily occurrence.

“We’ve invested millions in our cyber infrastructure statewide,” said Lee.

In addition to continued attacks on the system, the Secretary believes voters are going to be bombarded with misinformation; everything from a candidate’s stance to the day of the election being changed.

And Lee said if you see something on social media that raises a question, don’t swallow it.

Go to local supervisors for an answer.

The state now has five full time cyber specialists working to protect the statewide voting infrastructure.

Lee also emphasized Tuesday that no voting machine is attached to the internet where it can be hacked.

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