TALLAHASSEE — Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist is beginning his bid to return to Florida’s governor’s mansion with a focus on voting rights, an issue that played a big role in his own political career and one he thinks can be an effective cudgel against Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Crist, a former Republican Florida governor and current Democratic congressman from St. Petersburg, has been crisscrossing the state in recent days to promote his “Voting Rights Tour.” He’s using the public events to highlight his political resume, including restoring voting rights for more than 150,000 felons during his one term as governor from 2007 to 2011, and echoing Democratic criticisms of legislation passed by the GOP-led state Legislature and signed by DeSantis that supporters say secures Florida’s election integrity, but opponents decry as a coordinated effort to make it harder to vote.
“He’s running for president,” Crist, speaking during a roundtable at Tallahassee’s NAACP regional office, said of DeSantis, who is widely believed to be eyeing a 2024 presidential bid. “I mean, I see what’s going on and it breaks my heart. Florida is not a stepping stone.”
Crist spent much of time at the event denouncing the election bill (SB 90), which was authored by Republican legislative majorities and which DeSantis signed into law during a closed-door ceremony in Palm Beach County that only Fox News was allowed to attend.
“I think he invited one news outlet,” Crist said. “You might be able to guess which one it was.”
Even after Florida’s 2020 election went smoothly — earning praise from DeSantis — the state’s Legislature joined others across the country in approving bills that added new voting regulations.
The Florida elections bill, among other things, ends 24-7 use of ballot drop boxes, which more than 1.5 million Florida voters utilized in 2020 during the pandemic, by requiring the boxes be monitored by an in-person election official and only be available during early voting hours. The measure also imposes a two-ballot limit on the number of vote-by-mail ballots a person can gather and return on behalf of the elderly or sick, and requires voters to renew standing vote-by-mail ballot requests every calendar year.
The legislation has drawn two separate federal lawsuits from voting rights groups, and created partisan battlelines in court. The Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, led by Sen. Rick Scott, a former Florida governor who Crist unsuccessfully challenged in 2014, have filed motions to intervene in the legal challenges in support of the legislation.
“The lawsuits being pushed by radical leftists in Florida have no basis in fact,” Scott said in a statement when the NRSC filed its motion. “They are part of the Democrats’ Big Lie — that any efforts to secure the integrity of our elections is racist. That is a lie and the NRSC is proud to stand with the RNC in my home state to defend this common sense law and fight back against the Democrats’ lies.”
Democrats nearly universally oppose the legislation, including Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat and Crist’s top Democratic primary challenger. She opposed the election bill throughout Florida’s 2021 legislative session, and has used it as part of an overall messaging strategy that frames DeSantis as an “authoritarian,” while Crist has turned much of his campaign’s early focus specifically on the election law changes.
“If you can’t cast your ballot, or others make it more difficult for you to be able to do,” Crist said, “they’re basically impeding your freedom and your voice.”