The Florida Senate passed a sweeping new law that overhauls the state’s electoral process, adds new restrictions to the state’s electoral code, and establishes a law enforcement agency dedicated solely to investigating electoral crimes.
The bill, passed on 24/14, now goes to the state House of Representatives, where it could be passed next week and land on the desk of Republican Republican leader Ron DeSantis, who is expected to pass it. will sign. A Republican, Senator Jeff Brandes, voted against. A Democratic Senator, Loranne Ausley, initially voted yes, but immediately posted on Twitter that she “pressed the wrong button” and has since changed her voice.
Although Republicans in the state passed another sweeping voting bill in May last year, Mr. DeSantis also made election reform one of the top priorities for this term. Both efforts came after Florida’s 2020 election passed without major issues, with Republicans in the state touting it as a “gold standard” for election administration.
The legislation is poised to become the first major election-related law to be passed this year in a critical battleground, and it would be no sign that the wave of new election laws that began last year is adding more restrictions to voting — with 34 laws passed in 19 states.
At the heart of the bill is the creation of a permanent electoral crimes bureau within the State Department, which would make Florida one of the first states to have an agency dealing solely with election crimes and voter fraud, although such crimes are exceedingly rare in the United States. United States. An investigation last year by The Associated Press found fewer than 475 potential fraud claims out of 25.5 million ballots cast for president in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
The new office would help the Secretary of State investigate complaints and allegations, launch their own independent investigations and oversee a voter fraud hotline. It would include an unspecified number of investigators, and Mr. DeSantis would also appoint at least one special officer in each of the State Department of Law Enforcement’s regional offices to investigate electoral crimes.
The bill would also increase penalties for those who collect and submit more than two absentee ballots from a felony to a felony.
Voting rights groups are concerned that the ongoing criminalization of the voting process could both deter voters from participating and make election officials fear prosecution for honest mistakes.
“Involving law enforcement officers with this kind of nebulous mandate naturally creates problems and can certainly adversely affect voters’ ability to vote if they are concerned about law enforcement involvement,” said Daniel Griffith, policy director at Secure. Democracy USA, a non-partisan organization focused on elections and voter access. “And it adversely affects election officials if they’re concerned about law enforcement getting over their shoulder.”
Previously, election fraud investigations were handled by the Florida Secretary of State, the Department of Law Enforcement and the Attorney General. Democrats argued that the bill effectively creates a new agency to do work done by existing agencies. The creation of the agency, Democrats say, is just a political ploy to show that Florida and Mr. DeSantis remain tough on a core issue, both on the Republican base and on former President Donald J. Trump.
“Why are we doing this?” said state senator Lori Berman during Friday’s debate. “The only thing I can think of is that we are motivated by the ‘Big Lie’ that the elections nationwide have not taken place properly. But we know that’s not true.”
State Senator Travis Hutson, the bill’s sponsor and a Republican, defended it during Friday’s debate, stating that having a dedicated military force would both expose more fraud and allow the state to handle more allegations.
“We had great elections, the governor said so,” Mr Hutson said. “But I want to point out that there is always room for improvement.”
He added: “I will say there is no intimidation of voters or suppression of votes in this bill.”
The new polling station was also criticized by some Republican members, who argued that it was unnecessary.
“For 15 people to get behind what may be a handful of complaints that will eventually go down is just absolutely almost comical,” Mr Brandes said during Friday’s debate, citing suggestions from the executive to assign 15 investigators to the office. point . “So I’m not going to support this bill today.”
In the past, uniformed law enforcement officers have been used to deter and suppress voters. In 1982, the Republican National Committee sent a group of off-duty armed police officers known as the National Ballot Security Task Force to loiter in New Jersey polling stations during a heavily contested gubernatorial election. The Democratic National Committee filed a lawsuit and forced the RNC to pass a consent decree banning such tactics.
Those memories still seemed to be in the minds of lawmakers in the Florida legislature. During Thursday’s debate, Senator Victor Manuel Torres Jr. to Mr. Hutson, the bill’s sponsor, “Will these individuals be in uniform or civilian clothes?”
Mr. Hutson replied that the current Secretary of State’s Enforcement Department dresses in civilian clothes and members of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement will likely be in uniform.
In addition to the new Electoral Crimes and Security Bureau, the bill adds other new restrictions to voting, including banning electoral voting; increasing the limit on penalties from third-party registration groups from $1,000 to $50,000; extend a ban on private financing for election administration to the “cost of any lawsuits”; and replacing references to “drop boxes” with “secure ballot collection stations”.