Editorial Roundup: Florida

Palm Beach Post. November 10, 2021.

Editorial: Give popular vote priority in presidential elections

It’s a truism most Americans take for granted: Elected officeholders win by getting a majority of the vote. The concept is usually the rule, with one notable exception: president and vice president. For those positions, winning the popular vote nationally doesn’t guarantee victory.

Florida can change that. Bills before the Florida Legislature will put our state along with others in a national compact to ensure that the winners of the November 2024 presidential election are the ones who get the most votes. All it takes to make the change is for states with a total of 270 electoral votes to pass laws to join the compact.

Florida shouldn’t be left out in the cold.

The National Popular Interstate Compact is a bipartisan effort to make voting in America count again. Right now, presidential campaigns in the general elections focus on “battleground” states that attract the bulk of the candidates’ time and resources. Voters in those states get the attention, while the rest of the country is treated more like disinterested spectators than participants. The result is lower turnout as voters in “blue” and “red” states believe their votes don’t count.

A civics lesson is in order. Presidents and vice presidents aren’t elected by popular vote. The Constitution provides for an indirect election, by a group of state-appointed “electors,” known as the Electoral College. The Constitution doesn’t specify how electors are to cast their votes. However, most states have adopted “winner-take-all” laws that award elector votes to whomever wins the most votes in that state.

Unfortunately, these laws make it is mathematically possible to win 270 electoral votes while still losing the nationwide popular vote. Such results override the will of a majority of Americans and undermine the winner’s legitimacy and ability to lead. Five of the 45 presidents lost the popular vote but won their elections — most recently George W. Bush and Donald Trump. The compact wouldn’t eliminate the Electoral College or require a change in the Constitution, two high hurdles. All it would do is allow states to direct their electors to give their votes to the winner of the national popular vote, a move that would change the way presidential campaigns are conducted and include more Americans in the process.

To date,15 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws requiring their electors back the winner of the national popular vote in 2024. That’s 195 electoral votes. The change will be complete once enough states join and the required 270 total is reached,

The change might be a huge reform for the nation but presents a tough sell in Florida, one of those “swing” states that benefits from the outsized attention and the vast amount of money that comes with a presidential election. The sponsors of HB 69 and SB 584 — State Sen. Victor Torres Jr., D-Orlando and State Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura — may be on the right side of history but the wrong side of the political aisle to make it happen. Republican legislators aren’t likely to change the way Florida electors vote, and Gov. Ron DeSantis, a presidential aspirant, isn’t likely to back the compact.

Too bad. Florida may enjoy being battleground state now, but there are signs that its influence on presidential elections could change.

Florida went for Republicans in 2020, but President Joe Biden handily won that election without much help from the Sunshine State. Florida’s 30 electoral votes could again back a loser, if Biden and the Democrats regain their political footing and carry the same states that put him in the White House or add new ones in the 2024 election.

The state may also lose its “swing state” luster. For the first time in history, registered Republican voters outnumber registered Democrats — a point Democrats debunk — and outside interests have noticed. The Democratic Governors Association, according to a Politico report, had begun to “deprioritize” participating in the upcoming governor’s race, a report the association later disputed. Even so, if Florida is perceived as being too politically uncompetitive, the state will lose out on millions in campaign contributions that would normally go to to television ads and get-out-the-vote campaign operations.

___

Orlando Sentinel. November 15, 2021.

Editorial: Racism and road-building isn’t ‘weird stuff’ — as I-4 shows, it’s reality

When highway planners were designing a route for Interstate 4 in the 1950s, their first thought was to bring it directly through downtown Orlando via Winter Park.

That didn’t sit well with Winter Park’s well-to-do residents, and after a furious lobbying campaign the route was shifted to the west, along the city’s downtown outskirts. Some 550 pieces of property, including homes and businesses, were taken in Parramore, and the highway effectively walled off the predominantly Black neighborhood from Orlando’s downtown district.

The rest is history. Parramore, once a thriving community, declined. In 1973, the East-West Expressway sliced through Parramore, further isolating the neighborhood.

Which brings us to Pete Buttigieg and Ron DeSantis.

Buttigieg, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, said last week that a portion of the recently approved infrastructure bill would address some of the historical inequalities baked into road-building decisions of the past.

The right collectively hooted at the idea, as did Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who said, “I heard some stuff, some weird stuff, from the Secretary of Transportation trying to make this about social issues. To me, a road’s a road.”

That’s the reaction of a politician who is either willfully ignorant of the past or who deliberately ignores it to suit his ideological narrative and political ambitions.

One thing’s for sure, the response of DeSantis and others is an argument for teaching young people that America’s history of systemic, institutionalized racism isn’t a fable.

It’s very real, as I-4 and countless other road-building projects through the years have proved.

Over in Tampa, Interstate 275 went through Black neighborhoods that planners described in 1951 as “one of the most insidious and cancerous infections in the city.” A report released earlier this year outlined decades of discriminatory housing and road construction policies in Tampa.

Down in Miami, the once vibrant Overtown neighborhood was sliced and diced by the construction of Interstate 95, the Dolphin Expressway and the Midtown Interchange, its population plummeting from 50,000 to 10,000.

And up in Jacksonville, a new expressway that later became part of I-95 took out Black neighborhoods on the north side, including the prosperous “Sugar Hill” district.

Florida’s no different from other parts of the country where infrastructure projects have, in fact, targeted places where people of color live. Other instances have been documented in Dallas, Birmingham, Atlanta, Tulsa, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Entire books have been written on the subject.

No, roads don’t discriminate, but the people who designed and approved them did. All the time.

That’s what Buttigieg was talking about, and it’s only “weird stuff” if you’re trying to whitewash the reality of American history.

The new infrastructure bill gives the Transportation Department the ability to award grants that, in part, would be used to try and mitigate some of those earlier design and routing decisions. As an example, Buttigieg said money might go toward projects that would help reconnect communities that were divided by highways.

Maybe a community like Parramore, where the racial divide of Interstate 4 was vividly illustrated by a recent mapping project by The Tributary, a journalism collective in North Florida. Using different color dots to show race and ethnicity, the map starkly shows I-4 as a racial dividing line between Parramore and predominantly white neighborhoods to the east.

No matter what DeSantis thinks — and no matter how much racial history he and the Legislature try to erase under the guise of banning critical race theory in schools — institutional racism had a profound and lingering effect on this state and the nation.

There is probably no better evidence of it than the destructive and racist road-building decisions that this and other states made, many of those decisions made in the course of our lifetimes.

There’s nothing weird about trying to make things right with the communities that fell victim to those decisions.

___

Tampa Bay Times. November 16, 2021.

Editorial: Florida Democrats should stick together to defeat bad public records law

The state should keep these records in the sunshine.

Democrats in the state Legislature have a chance to stop a bad law from taking effect. All they have to do is stick together. If they remain disciplined and vote as a bloc, they can chalk up a rare victory — and keep public records in the sunshine, where they belong. Will they do it?

The Republicans hold large majorities in the House and the Senate. In recent years, they have shown a remarkable ability to keep most internal disputes in check and the discipline to pass their top priorities. For better and for worse, they routinely outplay the Democrats in the rough-and-tumble environment of state politics. At times, it feels like the Tampa Bay Bucs are playing against a high-school team.

The Republicans will almost assuredly dominate this week’s special session called to limit mask and COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The proposed bills would allow employees to opt out of their employer vaccine mandates if they provide a doctor’s note or claim a religious exemption. Employees would be allowed to file complaints against their employers with the Attorney General’s office, which could levy fines of up to $50,000. Another bill would exempt the complaints against private employers from public scrutiny.

The Legislature must show a “public necessity” when creating a public records exemption. The text of this bill — SB 4 — makes a flimsy case based on a heavy dose of supposition glued loosely to lots of conjecture. The information in a complaint could be used to “harass, embarrass, or humiliate a person based on his or her medical information or religious beliefs,” the bill asserts. The information “could result in the employee becoming a target of an act of violence or other crimes.” Talk about overwrought.

It would be easy to exempt lots of state records based on theoretical worst-case scenarios. But when in doubt, government records should be public, open for inspection to any interested person. Openness promotes fairness, honesty and accountability, bedrocks of a well-functioning democracy. Secrecy does the opposite. It allows corruption to fester and erodes confidence in the political system. This exemption would make it harder to know if the complaints were handled judiciously.

Thankfully, it takes a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate to pass an exemption to the state’s public records laws. The Republicans don’t have that many votes on their own. They need some Democrats to support the bill. But for once the Democrats shouldn’t splinter. In this case, they can do some good if they can find the courage to stick together.

___

South Florida Sun Sentinel. November 11, 2021.

Editorial: UF’s free speech task force offers no accountability

The saga of the UF professors may seem over. The University of Florida has said the three political science professors initially banned from testifying in a voting lawsuit against the state can go ahead and appear. But many questions remain, and a task force formed by UF President Kent Fuchs isn’t going to give the public the answers we deserve.

By Nov. 29, Fuchs’ task force must offer answers to two questions: “When should UF allow professors to serve as expert witnesses in lawsuits and what role does faculty have in reviewing these requests?” as the Miami Herald reported.

Important questions, certainly. The answers should, at a minimum, include an assertion that a public university can never serve as a mouthpiece for the state. How could a school of UF’s prominence have come up with the initial reasoning for refusing the professors’ request to testify for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit over the state’s new law reducing access to ballot drop boxes and limiting vote-by-mail requests?

“UF will deny its employees’ requests to engage in outside activities when it determines the activities are adverse to its interests. As UF is a state actor, litigation against the state is adverse to UF’s interests,” the university’s vice president in charge of compliance wrote in an email to the professors.

That statement is utterly antithetical to the spirit of free inquiry critical to higher education and the very foundations of a democratic republic. The idea that the university, as a state-funded entity, can never have employees criticize the state belongs not among higher education in the United States, but rather the despotic regimes around the world whose leaders were so beloved by our previous president.

Fuchs’ task force, from the outset, is doing only half the job. By strictly keeping its inquiries forward-looking, the university avoids accountability for past actions. The denial of professors’ abilities to testify in trials against the state was not limited simply to these three professors. Another professor was denied the ability to testify in a lawsuit against the state’s ban on mask mandates. Four others were barred from signing a brief in a lawsuit against the state’s implementation of a voter-approved constitutional amendment giving most felons the right to vote.

But by simply looking to change this outrageous policy of gagging professors, this task force fails to answer the most urgent question: How did this policy come to be in the first place?

Let us be clear: We expect heads to roll. It is not enough for the university to hide behind that passive-voice phrase that is the final defense of incompetent politicians and bureaucrats everywhere: “Mistakes were made.”

By whom?

Without answering that question, this task force is a sham.

___

Miami Herald. November 12, 2021.

Editorial: Florida GOP aims to placate anti-vaxxers. DeSantis gets to chest-thump in the end

There’s the chest thumping that Gov. Ron DeSantis does during his “Don’t tread on Florida” events. Then there’s the reality of what Republicans can actually accomplish without alienating the businesses that helped put them in office.

Florida’s special legislative session, called by DeSantis to undermine new federal COVID-19 vaccination mandates, begins Monday. Conspicuously absent from the bills lawmakers will consider are the governor’s proposals to punish businesses by making them liable for medical harm arising from mandatory vaccination and to strip them from COVID-19 legal protections if they impose a mandate, the Herald reported this week.

In many ways, this special session is little more than a public performance designed to show that Republicans are protecting “freedom” — meaning, a small number of unvaccinated workers at the expense of everyone else. All of that comes courtesy of Florida taxpayers, who are footing the bill to send more than 100 lawmakers to Tallahassee outside their regular annual session that starts in just two months.

CREATING LOOPHOLES

That’s not to say the special session won’t inflict further harm on Florida businesses and on President Biden’s efforts to boost vaccination rate through employer mandates. Republicans are looking to grant anti-vaxxers a wish list by creating as many loopholes in these mandates as possible.

The main bill under consideration (Senate Bill 2B and House Bill 1B) forces employers to offer a series of exemptions from having to get the vaccine. Those include exemptions for religious or medical reasons. With the exception of people who have had a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine, very few people cannot get vaccinated. Most common medical conditions such as diabetes make people more vulnerable to the coronavirus — not the shots. So we wonder how many credible doctors would be willing to sign off on this.

Also included under the exemptions is pregnancy, even though pregnant women are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and the benefits of the vaccines outweigh its potential risks, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

And then, there’s the “anticipated pregnancy” exemption. Could anyone with a womb claim that exemption? Given that many women believe the shots lead to infertility, though there’s no evidence of that, that doesn’t sound far fetched. The Department of Health would be tasked with determining who falls under this category. Based on the head of the agency, vaccine skeptic Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, we don’t expect that process to make much sense.

‘NATURAL IMMUNITY’ ARGUMENT

Employers also would be barred from imposing a mandate if a worker can provide proof of “COVID-19 immunity,” which seems to cover people who had a previous infection. Just like eating your fruits and vegetables, DeSantis and vaccine skeptics have promoted “natural immunity” as the equivalent or better than the “processed” immunity you get from the vaccine, even though the latter provides stronger protection, according to a CDC study.

Some of the other exceptions proposed by lawmakers do seem more reasonable, such as allowing unvaccinated employees to take periodic COVID tests at no cost to them. That, however, is already an option under Biden’s mandate. So, what’s the point of this special session other than to give irresponsible, unvaccinated workers an official stamp of approval from the Legislature?

Where the GOP is today with relation to businesses is a long way from where the party was just earlier this year, when the Legislature passed a law that gives businesses immunity from COVID-related lawsuits. It’s also in sharp contrast to where the party was before the pandemic. Just two year ago, DeSantis signed a law without fanfare to require healthcare providers enter children’s immunization records into a state registry. The legislation was approved almost unanimously despite opposition from anti-vaccine groups that protested outside the Capitol.

Back then, both political parties saw these groups as tinfoil hat types. Today, one party has happily welcomed them into its tent.

OSHA WITHDRAWAL

Another bill under consideration would allocate $1 million to the governor’s office to come up with a plan to withdraw Florida from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that will enforce Biden’s mandates. The legislation calls for the creation of a state agency — aka, more state bureaucracy and cost to taxpayers so Republicans can stick it to Biden.

As the Herald reported, some experts believe a new state agency likely wouldn’t reduce the regulatory burden on businesses because it would have to be as effective as OSHA. So why do we need a new agency? Perhaps so that Florida Republicans have control over a new bureaucratic machine for their own political endeavors. It’s not lost on us that Senate President Wilton Simpson and another top GOP lawmaker own companies that have been fined by OSHA in the past for workplace issues.

Who’s truly benefiting from sending legislators to Tallahassee starting Monday? The small, but loud, minority of workers who confuse vaccine resistance with freedom. And, of course, a governor for whom it is politically expedient to appeal to vaccine skepticism in the midst of a pandemic that has killed more than 60,000 Floridians.

END