Florida has approved a measure that would create a statewide office to investigate election crimes – the first of its kind in the United States.
Voter fraud is extremely rare both nationwide and in Florida. Nonetheless, the new office of election crime and security will have 25 positions to investigate election fraud and be funded with more than $3m, Daniel Perez, a Republican state representative who backed the bill, said on the floor of the Florida house this week.
It will be housed within the department of state, which is responsible for overseeing elections in Florida and whose head is appointed by the governor. The department will be authorized to investigate any alleged violations of Florida election law and oversee a voter fraud hotline.
Each year, the agency will be required to provide a report to the governor and state legislature on how many investigations it conducted the previous year as well as how many matters were referred to another agency for further investigation or prosecution.
The measure passed the Florida house on Wednesday and final approval from the Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, is expected shortly. The unit is slightly scaled back from what DeSantis called for in January, when he requested $6m for the office and wanted 52 staffers.
DeSantis praised the administration of Florida’s election in November 2020, saying “The way Florida did it, I think, inspires confidence. I think that’s how elections should be run.”
The Florida department of state received 262 election fraud complaint forms and referred 75 of those to prosecutors, according to the Washington Post. More than 11 million Floridians voted in 2020.
“There is absolutely no reason for an elections police force,” Kirk Bailey, the political director of the Florida chapter of the ACLU said in a statement.
“The handful of cases of intentional misconduct that have been prosecuted in the past year demonstrates that the existing system works. There are no guardrails in this legislation to prevent the proposed office from becoming politicized.”
Beyond the election police force, the bill contains other new significant voting restrictions. It raises the penalty for collecting more than two mail-in ballots from a misdemeanor to a felony punishable with prison time. It also increases the maximum fines on third-party voter registration groups if they don’t turn in a voter’s registration within 14 days. The fine maximum fine increases to $50,000.
“The Republican leadership in the state of Florida has added to their notorious reputation of passing restrictive voter suppression laws with the passage of SB 524. This unnecessary bill that Governor DeSantis has vowed to sign into law is nothing more than a tool to further insulate Republican political power at the expense of Floridian’s voting rights,” said Genesis Robinson, the political director of Equal Ground, a civic action group.
During debate on the bill this week, several Democrats pressed Perez on whether the bill would allow for punishment for those who accidentally collect more than two ballots or misplace a voter registration. Perez said he was not concerned about voters being wrongly punished because prosecutors have discretion over how to pursue cases and the penalties were needed to deter bad actors.
Other provisions in the bill would require elections officials to annually look for ineligible voters on the state’s voter rolls. It requires the state’s motor vehicle department to notify election officials of people who indicate they are non-citizen. Texas recently experienced severe problems by relying on similar data to try to purge its voter rolls.
The bill also imposes new hurdles for voters to get ballot initiatives, eliminates the term “drop box” in state law and calls them “secure ballot intake stations”, and extends a ban on private funding for elections to include litigation.
“It is wrong for Governor DeSantis and state legislators to take money needed for community investment and use it to diminish the voices of that community. It is wrong for them to criminalize Floridians exercising their freedom to vote. And it is wrong for them to target communities of color,” Caren Short, the interim deputy legal director for voting rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund said in a statement.