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Florida Democrats tell Gov. DeSantis: Take the money, democracy depends on it

James Call
USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau
Walton Sun

Florida Democrats want GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis to use federal money to make voting safer this November. An administration spokesman says they plan to.

A group of state lawmakers and members of Congress on Wednesday called on the governor to stop "dithering" and "act now" to get a $20 million federal grant, available for states to help prepare for voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

Officials traced at least 50 COVID-19 cases to the Wisconsin primary election last month. The speed by which the virus spreads has fueled debate about whether in-person elections should occur during a public health emergency.

Congress put up $400 million in the CARES Act approved in March to help state officials administer voting during the outbreak. But Florida is one of four states, including Hawaii, Oklahoma and Texas, that have not requested any of the money.

"It is clear he is stalling and waiting for direction from his boss, Donald Trump, to give him direction," said Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who joined three fellow Democrats — Congresswoman Donna Shalala, state Sen. Gary Farmer and state Rep. Geraldine Thompson — in a call with reporters.

"The longer he waits, the wider he opens the door to chaos, confusion and calamity this fall," Wasserman Schultz said.

In a statement sent Thursday, Florida Division of Elections spokesman Mark Ard said the state in fact plans to ask for the $20.2 million allocated to it by the federal government. The elections division has "been in conversation with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the Executive Office of the Governor, legislative staff and the Florida Supervisors of Elections to determine the best course of action."

Florida "is committed to ensuring the protection of voters and elections staff (permanent and temporary), maintaining accessibility for all voters, and providing equipment, supplies, services and/or support to the fullest extent possible with the funds made available through CARES Act," Ard said.

"To that end, we will be assisting our 67 county supervisors of elections to make these funds available in the most expeditious manner possible...."

Election officials say social distancing guidelines and other precautions affect their ability to administer elections safely. Florida's supervisors of elections asked DeSantis last month to issue an executive order that would allow them to designate additional early voting days and locations, and provide additional time to process vote-by-mail ballots.

Farmer, a Broward County Democrat, said it was "curious" that DeSantis has not requested the money to help with the upcoming election: "We are asking the governor to do one thing: Simply listen to your supervisors of elections."

He added: "This CARES Act funding represents a bipartisan act of Congress to provide (money) because of, as they know and recognize, the challenges to protections of the constitutional right to vote this coming fall."

Last week, 13 members from both parties in Florida's congressional delegation signed a letter to DeSantis that called on him to accept the money.

They argued Florida needs those funds to ensure safe voting while the potentially deadly virus is still active.

Wasserman Schultz said Wisconsin showed people will turn out to vote despite the threat coronavirus poses. She said any "hand wringing" over accessing the $20 million could lead to more people getting sick just because they exercise their right to vote.

"If that is what Ron DeSantis wants to happen, then that additional sickness and deaths will be on his hands," she said. "He doesn't have to continue to be indecisive and cowardly. He needs to grab the bull by the horns and act to protect our democracy by protecting the vote."

DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferre late Wednesday said the governor "continues to flatten the curve by partnering with the medical community, save the lives of our elderly population, increase testing for COVID-19, and help Florida communities reopen the economy.

She added: "We do not have time to engage in the politicization of the pandemic, which is an affront to the dignity of the millions of Floridians who have sacrificed enormously throughout this public health emergency.”

Florida last reported it has confirmed 42,402 cases of COVID-19 and attributed 1,827 deaths to the respiratory disease. In the past month, the number of cases has nearly doubled and the number of fatalities has tripled.

James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jcall@tallahassee.com. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee

This story originally published to tallahassee.com and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.