State Watch

Florida Senate advances bill to create election police force

A Florida state Senate committee has approved an overhaul of election laws that would add new requirements for voters who want to cast a ballot by mail and create a special law enforcement department dedicated to investigating election-related crimes.

The measure is the latest effort by a red state to make changes to voting laws to address what Republicans say is a lack of confidence in the outcome of a presidential election that former President Trump has sought to undermine.

The new bill, which passed the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee on Tuesday, would create an Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Department of State. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), widely thought to be considering a presidential run of his own in 2024, called for the establishment of an election crimes division last year.

DeSantis, who faces reelection later this year, said at an event in November that the new office would give Floridians an avenue to report suspected election-related crimes.

“There’ll be people, if you see someone ballot harvesting, you know, what do you do? If you call into the election office, a lot of times they don’t do anything. If you know that, there’s, you know, in Florida, it’s constitutionally mandated, only citizens are allowed to vote in Florida, and yet you see examples of people, they’ll even check they’re not citizens, and they’ll still be given ballots,” DeSantis said at the time, according to The Associated Press.

A database of voter fraud convictions maintained by the conservative Heritage Foundation lists a total of 14 cases since 2017, only one of which was an instance of an ineligible voter casting a ballot. That case, from 2016, involved an inmate at a county jail.

DeSantis said last year that audits of Florida’s elections in 2020 found no glaring errors.

“It passed with flying colors, in terms of how that’s going,” he said in October.

Still, DeSantis has called for new reforms as he looks ahead to his upcoming election and his own political future.

The proposed measure, sponsored by state Sen. Travis Hutson (R), would create an investigative unit staffed by 15 full-time investigates and 10 law enforcement agents appointed by the governor himself. The agency would report to the governor and his Cabinet.

DeSantis’s original proposal called for about twice that many investigators and law enforcement officers.

Democrats and voting rights groups have raised concerns about the bill, which they say spends taxpayer dollars to chase after nonexistent — and even nonspecific — fraud allegations.

“Gov. DeSantis and Republicans are showing once again that they are willing to play politics with state resources to try to exert as much influence over our democratic election process as possible,” said Manny Diaz, the chairman of the Florida Democratic Party.

The new law enforcement agency would “create a chilling effect on voting, and sow even more distrust in our elections,” Diaz said.

Hutson’s bill goes beyond establishing a new police force. It would also block Florida elections departments from using private donations to pay for election-related expenses.

That provision, which mirrors proposals in states such as Texas, Arizona and Georgia, comes after Republicans in many states were critical of a nonprofit group, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, that helped underfunded local elections divisions pay for regular expenses ahead of the 2020 elections.

Hutson’s measure would increase penalties assessed against third-party voter registration groups that run afoul of state rules. Organizations that collect voter registration forms have 14 days to turn them in to a local elections division, at the risk of a $1,000 fine; the measure would increase potential fines to $50,000 a year.

And it would require voters who cast a mail-in ballot to include identifying information from their state driver’s license or identification card or the last four digits of their Social Security number.

Florida is among the states with the longest histories of voting by mail. In previous elections, Republicans have voted by mail at higher rates than Democratic voters.

The legislation must still advance through two other committees before it gets to the Senate floor.

Tags Donald Trump Election 2022 Florida Florida voting laws Mark Zuckerberg Ron DeSantis

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