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Fla. bill creating election crimes investigation unit heads to governor’s desk

Investigators would be non-sworn citizens but assisted by 10 hand-picked law enforcement agents


A woman drops off her election ballot at the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, on Oct. 29, 2021.

Boyzell Hosey/Tampa Bay Times/TNS

By Lawrence Mower
Tampa Bay Times

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Fueled by their base’s concerns about voter fraud, Republicans in the Florida Legislature on Wednesday approved a contentious slate of elections reforms that would create a first-of-its-kind office to investigate election crimes.

The Florida House of Representatives voted 76-41, entirely along party lines, to send Senate Bill 524 to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign it.

The bill makes numerous changes to the state’s election laws with a focus, proponents say, on targeting election fraud.

In addition to a 25-person election crimes office, lawmakers are requiring election supervisors to clean the voter rolls each year, enhancing penalties for some election-related crimes and making various administrative changes. Nearly all the provisions would take effect this year, ahead of DeSantis’ reelection campaign this fall.

“Our job is to make sure our elections are as secure as possible, and you want to know why?” said state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a Spring Hill Republican. “Our constituents are demanding it.”

Democrats and voting rights groups have called the bill a form of voter suppression intended to make it harder to vote.

“The only problem I see here is our governor and his endless ambition to be president at the cost of Floridians’ freedoms,” state Rep. Kamia Brown, an Ocoee Democrat, said Wednesday.

The bill hands DeSantis, who is up for reelection and eyeing a 2024 presidential run, another political win on a topic popular with the conservative base since 2020, when former President Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection.

Since then, Republican lawmakers have been pressured to target fraud from homegrown groups like Defend Florida, a group of conservative Floridians and Trump supporters who are going door to door trying to find people who have voted illegally. Trump supporters erected a sign near the Capitol urging DeSantis to audit the 2020 election — something the governor has resisted — and telling lawmakers to pass reforms that are much more stringent than what Senate Bill 524 currently does.

Concern over voter fraud was the No. 1 issue for their constituents, multiple Republicans said Wednesday, but they did not credit Trump for fueling those concerns.

“There are people that doubt the integrity of elections,” said state Rep. Tommy Gregory, a Sarasota Republican. “It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you sit on. You have to recognize the danger that that presents.”

Trump’s claims of widespread fraud that cost him the election have never been substantiated.

But Republicans in Florida have found themselves at the center of a number of election-related scandals since 2020, from instances of individuals voting twice to political operatives planting fake candidates to voter registration groups switching longtime Democratic voters to Republicans in Miami-Dade County without their consent.

The bill sponsor, state Rep. Danny Perez, a Miami Republican, said Tuesday that there has been fraud “in my own backyard, by allegedly my own party.”

GOP lawmakers have used some of those examples to justify the changes this year. The bill includes increasing the fine for switching someone’s voter registration without consent from $250 to $1,000 per instance.

The bill also creates a 15-member Office of Election Crimes and Security within the office of the Secretary of State, which reports to the governor. Investigators would be civilians but they would be assisted by 10 sworn Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents chosen by the governor.

Those 25 people, at a cost of about $3.7 million annually, would oversee the Secretary of State’s voter fraud hot line and have the authority to initiate independent inquiries. Each year, they would have to submit a report on their activities to the governor and Legislature.

In 2020, a year in which 18.1 million ballots were cast in statewide primaries and the general election that included nearly 300 races, the hot line received 262 complaints and referred 75 to police or prosecutors.

No state government is believed to have a large unit dedicated to investigating fraud.

DeSantis and Republicans have said that the new team is needed to investigate cases of fraud that elections supervisors notice but that aren’t pursued by local police and prosecutors.

Senate Bill 524 also requires the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to give the Secretary of State a list of people who present evidence of “non-U.S. citizenship” when they show up for a driver’s license or ID card. The department already supplies a list of people who have received driver’s licenses in other states to help remove ineligible voters from the rolls.

The bill also does several things that have no effect on voter fraud. One provision appears targeted to Pinellas County and would require county commissioners to run for reelection sooner than expected. It also prohibits ranked-choice voting, in which voters rank candidates by preference, a reaction to Sarasota City commissioners considering adopting the idea.

It also renames “drop boxes” to “ballot intake stations.”

The legislation comes less than a year after lawmakers passed a more expansive series of voting changes targeting voting by mail and limiting the use of ballot drop boxes.

A federal judge overseeing a challenge to that legislation, known as Senate Bill 90, has yet to rule on the case.

Voter registration groups say they’ve found it harder to sign up new voters since the legislation required them to warn potential voters that their registration forms might not be turned in on time.

Until 2020, Republican lawmakers in Florida had taken a light touch to stamping out voter fraud. In 2001, they lifted the ban on so-called “ballot harvesting,” a practice of collecting and turning in voters’ vote-by-mail ballots for them, and they took no action when a 2012 statewide grand jury recommended a number of security enhancements.

It wasn’t until 2020, after Democrats outvoted Republicans in voting by mail for the first time in decades, that Republicans decided to take action, said state Rep. Christopher Benjamin, a Miami Gardens Democrat.

“Every time we become closer to having something that’s equal, to doing something that looks like justice, you move the goalposts,” he said.

Democrats said they had no substantive say in how the legislation was drafted.

“I believe that the solution should come from both sides,” said state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat. “And to be very clear, this is a bill where both sides did not have input.”

In the Senate last week, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, said parts of this year’s bill were “almost comical.” He noted that complaints to the voter fraud hotline can be anonymous, while lawmakers last year passed a law forbidding local code complaints from being made anonymously.

The legislation now heading to DeSantis’ desk is not as robust as what he — and Republican lawmakers — first proposed.

DeSantis wanted a 52-person election security force with the power to take over any local investigation from local police and prosecutors.

Republican lawmakers never proposed allowing the elections team to take over an investigation by local police or prosecutors. They also did not assign the Secretary of State sworn police officers, which DeSantis wanted. Instead, the state police are assigned to assist the secretary’s investigators.

Republican lawmakers also originally wanted to target what they considered a potential flaw in the state’s vote-by-mail process.

When someone votes in person, they have to show an ID at a polling place.

When someone mails or drops off a vote-by-mail ballot, supervisors verify the voter’s identity by comparing their signature on the ballot envelope to the signature they have on file, which leads to thousands of mistaken rejections every election.

Republicans want voters to write near their signature an ID number, such as the last four digits of their driver’s license.

But after elections supervisors came out strongly against that, lawmakers dropped the idea in favor of tasking the Secretary of State with coming up with a plan on this issue by February.

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