Corporate-backed Florida Republicans push perplexing new voting restrictions

Republican elected officials in Florida do not claim that the 2020 presidential election was rigged or subject to significant fraud. "We did it right," Governor Ron DeSantis (R) said at a press conference last month. After all, unlike Georgia and Arizona, Trump won Florida. Nevertheless, DeSantis and his allies in the Florida legislature are pushing dramatic restrictions on voting in Florida before the next election. A Popular Information investigation, encompassing thousands of Florida campaign finance records filed over the last three years, reveals that the Republican elected officials pushing these bills through the legislature are backed by hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate donations.

The main vehicle for voting restrictions in Florida is Senate Bill 90, which has been endorsed by DeSantis. The bill's sponsor, Senator Dennis Baxley, admits the bill is proposing "fixes" for problems that do not exist. “I’m not a person that likes to wait for a big problem,” Baxley said. “I’m all about staying ahead of whatever problems could develop.”

Democrats say the purpose of Baxley's bill is to suppress votes to give Republicans an edge in future elections. Baxley rejects that, but is less clear on what is actually motivating his efforts. "[S]ome days even I don’t know why I did something," Baxley insists. 

Senate Bill 90 limits voting in three primary ways. First, it bans the use of drop boxes. Trump has insisted that drop boxes are a source of fraud, although Republicans in Florida do not argue it happened in their state. Second, Senate Bill 90 prohibits anyone other than an immediate family member from helping a voter return a mail-in ballot. Ironically, each time Trump has voted in Florida, his mail-in ballot was returned by a designee — a method that the legislation would make illegal. Finally, the bill would make a request for a mail-in ballot valid for only one election cycle instead of two. Fewer Republicans requested mail-in ballots in 2020 because Trump falsely claiming mail-in ballots were insecure. 

Experts believe that these provisions will "'disproportionately' harm Black and Hispanic voters." Nikki Fried, Florida's agriculture commissioner and the only Democrat elected statewide, blasted the proposal:

Adding roadblocks to mail ballots and banning ballot drop boxes will confuse and disenfranchise millions of voters. It’s clear that Florida Republicans’ latest voter suppression scheme, which is opposed by county election officials, is designed to silence the collective voices of millions.

Florida's nonpartisan Association of Supervisors of Elections, a group that includes numerous Republicans, also opposes the bill, saying it will create "chaos and long lines and confusion." 

Yet, the Republicans that pushed Senate Bill 90 out of committee are backed by corporations that purport to be champions of civil rights. CVS Caremark, for example, made a point to associate itself with the legacy of civil rights icon John Lewis, who nearly died advocating for the right to vote:

"While we know that CVS Health alone cannot erase the toll that 400 years of institutionalized racism and discrimination has taken on the Black community, we recognize that we have a role to play in living up to the potential the future holds," CVS Caremark said last July. Yet, since 2018, CVS Caremark has donated at least $32,000 to DeSantis and the sponsors of Senate Bill 90. 

For example, CVS Caremark donated $1,000 to Senator Joe Gruters (R), who voted to advance Senate Bill 90. The company also donated $55,000 over the last two years to the Florida Republican Party, which is chaired by Gruters. 

Gruters pushed Trump's false claims of voter fraud. On his Facebook page, Gruters recruited people to travel to Washington, DC on January 6.

Gruters also tweeted the #StoptheSteal hashtag which was used to spread Trump's lies about election malfeasance. The slogan was chanted on the steps of the Capitol on January 6. Gruters' loyalty to Trump was rewarded by the RNC, which named Gruters the chair of its "committee on election integrity nationwide."

CVS Caremark did not respond to a request for comment. 

But CVS Caremark is not alone. A Popular Information investigation found that companies have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to DeSantis and the supporters of Senate Bill 90. Many of these companies publicly champion voting rights. 

The other corporations backing DeSantis and the Florida legislators restricting voting

UnitedHealth Group, the nation’s largest health insurance company, has donated at least $180,000 since 2017 to DeSantis and four of the state senators pushing for Senate Bill 90. This amount includes $1,000 to State Senate Majority Leader Debbie Mayfield, who supported the Texas lawsuit that asked the Supreme Court to throw out the election results from four battleground states. 

“Ensuring that lawful votes are properly counted and confirming that laws are observed properly in our election process is paramount in protecting citizen’s confidence in government,” Mayfield wrote on Facebook in December 2020. “I am proud to stand by Attorney General Ashley Moody in her decision to join 16 other states in supporting Texas.”

UnitedHealth Group did not respond to a request for comment.

Publix Supermarkets has donated at least $157,000 since 2017 to DeSantis and seven of the state senators currently pushing for Senate Bill 90, including $1000 to Mayfield, $2000 to Gruters, and $500 to State Senator Douglas Broxson. In October 2020, as Trump made unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, Broxson spoke at a Trump rally in Florida. “Trump will be remembered for eternity,” Broxson said

Publix did not respond to a request for comment.

AT&T has donated at least $45,000 since 2017 to DeSantis and eight of the state senators advocating for Senate Bill 90. During the past year, AT&T has publicly championed voting rights. For example, the 2020 election was the first time the company ever used the AT&T Center in Texas for voting. AT&T also co-hosted a free “mega” drive-through voter registration event and even sold T-shirts that said “VOTE." Additionally, AT&T is a member of the Business Roundtable, which issued this statement in July 2020 in support of voting alternatives such as mail-in voting and absentee ballot voting:

Voting is a democratic principle that equally values the voice of every citizen. For so many Americans, voting was a hard-fought right. All Americans who qualify should be able to exercise this right free from unnecessary hurdles.

“Black lives matter and we have a moral and business obligation to engage on this fundamental issue of equality and fairness,” AT&T’s website reads. The company writes that one way it plans to drive change is through “advocat[ing] for systemic change” and “push[ing] for public policy changes to deliver equal justice outcomes for all.”  Experts note that anti-voting bills such as Senate Bill 90 disproportionately hurt Black and immigrant voters. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Other prominent corporations include Charter Communications, which has donated at least $108,000 since 2017 to DeSantis and five of the state senators advocating for Senate Bill 90, and Walgreens, which has donated $29,500 since 2017 to DeSantis and four of the state senators advocating for Senate Bill 90. Charter Communications did not respond to a request for comment and Walgreens declined to comment. Meanwhile, Chevron, which has donated at least $9,500 to seven of the state senators who voted in support of Senate Bill 90, told Popular Information that it “has no position on the proposed legislation.”

Below is a full list of the companies contacted by Popular Information, along with the amounts donated to supporters of the bill since 2017: