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Florida passes new voting law that includes restrictions on vote-by-mail and drop boxes

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Florida’s Legislature on Thursday passed an election bill that includes new restrictions on drop boxes and voting by mail over concerns from Democrats and voting rights activists that the new restrictions amount to voter suppression.

Both the state House and the state Senate passed the bills into law Thursday after weeks of negotiations between Republicans in both bodies. Now the bill is poised to be signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., who has already blessed efforts to enact new restrictions along these lines.

The bill passed the Senate 23-17 and the House 77-40.

The new legislation makes a slew of changes to the state’s election laws.

While an earlier proposal banned the use of ballot drop boxes outright, the current legislation allows their use as long as election officials follow new constraints — limitations on who can drop off a voter’s ballot at a drop box, a ban on moving drop box locations within 30 days of an election, restrictions on where drop boxes can be placed, and a requirement that they all must be monitored by an elections official whenever they’re open.

The bill also requires voters to request to vote by mail more regularly, prohibits election officials from using private funds to help pay for election administration, puts new restrictions on third-party voter registration organizations, gives new powers for partisan election observers, and allows DeSantis new leeway to appoint replacements to fill certain local political positions vacated by people running for higher office.

Democrats say that measure is targeted at local officials looking to run in a special election to replace the late Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., whose death left an opening in the Democrat-heavy Miami area. State Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Fla., called the measure an “attempt to create a monarchy” by giving the governor more power.

Republicans softened language that would have prohibited handing out any item to a voter within 150 feet of a polling place, including food and water, unless that person is an elections official.

The legislation now bans anyone from “engaging in any activity with the intent to influence or effect of influencing a voter,” but allows election supervisors to provide “non-partisan assistance” like giving items to voters within that restricted zone.

During the contentious state House debate on Wednesday, Democrats blasted the bill as aimed at restricting minority voters and Democrats, who relied on vote-by-mail and drop boxes in significant numbers during the 2020 presidential election. And they called the measures the fruit of former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of widespread electoral fraud, arguing it was aimed at curbing strong Democratic vote-by-mail turnout.

“We are not here because we have a problem with our elections, we are here because the Republican former president lost his re-election in November and rather than admitting his defeat, he spun a web of lies, radicalized those lies, in an attempt to explain away the loss,” said Democratic state Rep. Omari Hardy.

“This bill is the revival of Jim Crow in this state whether the sponsors admit it or not,” Hardy said.

Democrats offered a slew of amendments aimed at watering down some of the new restrictions, including removing the identification requirements, expanding who can return someone’s ballot to a drop box and allowing for drop boxes to be monitored by camera instead of a staff member. All of the Democratic amendments failed.

Republicans blistered at the accusations that they were cutting access, arguing that the state already provides robust avenues for voting and the measures were meant to protect voters from potential fraud, even as they admitted the 2020 election went smoothly in the state.

“I take some issue with the fact that we’re trying to somehow restrict the vote. There are more ways to vote in Florida and a longer opportunity than just about any state in the nation,” said Republican state Rep. Ralph Massullo.

“Fraud will be reduced as much as we can possibly do it with the work we’re doing today,” he said.

The legislation is one of many being introduced in Republican-led legislatures across the country in the wake of Trump’s lies about widespread voter fraud. Democrats in the state repeatedly compared the measure to legislation that passed into law earlier this year in Georgia, which prompted significant pushback from outside groups that led to a handful of prominent corporations ultimately condemning the legislation or pulling business from the state.

But unlike in Georgia, top Florida businesses have largely remained quiet on the issue despite urging from voting-rights activists.

Voting rights groups panned the bill’s passage in a slew of statements shortly after the House vote.

“S.B. 90 is a blatant violation of Floridians’ freedom to vote and represents a direct backlash to last year’s record-breaking turnout,” said Brad Ashwell, the director of the Florida branch of All Voting is Local. “By erecting onerous barriers to request and return a vote-by-mail ballot, this legislature has made voting a test of stamina and resources rather than a statement of civic responsibility.”

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CDC director defends decision to loosen mask requirements

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WASHINGTON — Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Sunday defended her agency’s decision to issue new and loosened guidelines on mask-wearing, changes that have sparked confusion among state and local officials, as well as businesses.

In an interview with “Meet the Press,” Walensky stressed that “evolving science” drove the decision to update the government’s guidance to say that those fully vaccinated for Covid-19 could safely shed their masks in most circumstances, and she said that the agency wanted to get the information to Americans as quickly as possible.

“Everybody, as we are working towards opening up again after 16 months getting out of this pandemic, will need to understand what they need to do locally. And this was not permission to shed masks for everybody everywhere. This was really science-driven individual assessment of your risk,” Walensky said.

“Right now, the data, the science shows us that it’s safe for vaccinated people to take off their masks. I, as the CDC director, promised the American people I would convey that science to you as we know it.”

The new guidelines say that those who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, two weeks out from their final shot, can safely choose not to wear a mask in most indoor and many outdoor circumstances.

The news came as a relief to a pandemic-weary public more than a year after the emergence of the strict public-health guidelines aimed at slowing the spread of the virus that has led to the death more than 589,000 people in America.

But it also came as a surprise, even to key stakeholders. Walensky and other federal public health officials had defended the old guidance, which recommended that all people wear masks in most public settings and practice social distancing regardless of vaccination status, as recently as a Tuesday Senate hearing.

State and local officials spent the next few days issuing new rules in response — some states said they’d end state mask mandates, others hinged the removal of mask mandates on vaccination rate, and others made no changes. In the business world, some companies announced they’d no longer require fully-vaccinated customers to wear masks, but labor groups have raised concerns that workers could be put at risk because it will be difficult to figure out whether customers without masks are in fact vaccinated.

“We are asking people to be honest with themselves,” Walensky said. “If they are vaccinated and they are not wearing a mask, they are safe. If they are not vaccinated and they are not wearing a mask, they are not safe.”

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, who lifted the city’s emergency mask order in response to the CDC guidance, called the guidance “welcome” but a decision that “creates confusion” with the city’s emergency order that required masks in most indoor settings.

“Staff at many establishments have been subject to harassment based on upholding our orders and we will not force them to do so further where our regulators cannot reasonably tell between those vaccinated or not,” he said in a statement.

Asked about the timing of the decision, Walensky said that “we have science that has really evolved just even in the last week,” pointing to new studies released in recent days.

“It was very clear that places were starting to make their own assessments, and we wanted to make sure they understood it was safe at the individual level,” she said of fully-vaccinated people limiting the need for masks.

“It was going to be nearly impossible for us to revise all, thousands of pages of our guidance simultaneously, and release it all, one at a time. We needed this building block, this first step, so we could say: This is the science upon which all future guidance will be based upon.”

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'Britain's back!' New markets emerge outside EU as Caribbean trade gives UK Brexit boost

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“BRITAIN is back”, the UK’s trade envoy for the Caribbean has declared as he told Express.co.uk of the wealth of opportunities Brexit offers.

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UK hits out as EU 'considers' options over legal action – 'Unjustified and unacceptable!'

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LORD Frost is holding his breath as the European Union mulls over whether to take the UK to court over claims Britain allegedly broke the Brexit protocol covering Northern Ireland.

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