TALLAHASSEE — Six months after signing what he called the strongest election security bill in the nation, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday said he wanted to beef up the state’s voting laws and create a new office to investigate and prosecute election-related fraud.
During an event in West Palm Beach, DeSantis said he would ask the state Legislature to increase penalties for “ballot harvesting” and require elections supervisors to “clean up” their voter rolls more often.
“We’re going to do another package of election integrity reforms that is going to make Florida way No. 1 by a long shot anywhere in the country,” DeSantis said.
The announcement comes as DeSantis faces mounting pressure from supporters of former President Donald Trump to conduct an audit of the 2020 election. Trump won Florida by 371,686 votes — a landslide by the state’s standards.
Groups have been knocking on doors collecting what they claim is evidence of fraud, and they put up a billboard in Tallahassee calling on DeSantis to conduct an audit. On Sunday, former Trump confidant Roger Stone threatened to challenge DeSantis’ re-election unless the governor conducted an audit of the election.
DeSantis has resisted those calls, saying the state did an automatic audit of the results.
“It passed with flying colors,” he told supporters last month.
On Wednesday, however, DeSantis echoed much of the rhetoric of those calling for an audit, implying that dead people voted in the election, that fraud was rampant and that it wasn’t being investigated.
“I know people who say, ‘My father passed away three years ago, he still gets ballots passed to his house,’” DeSantis told supporters.
Elections supervisors already provide updates on list maintenance efforts to the Florida Secretary of State, whom DeSantis oversees, every six months. Supervisors remove people from the rolls year-round if they die, are convicted of a felony or otherwise found ineligible, according to the Secretary of State.
DeSantis said he would call on lawmakers to impose a series of reforms “next session,” presumably when they convene in Tallahassee in January. He said he wants them to:
- Create a state office of police officers to investigate election-related crimes
- Impose different time frames for when elections supervisors have to “clean up” their voter rolls
- Increase the penalties for “ballot harvesting.” Lawmakers this year made possessing more than two vote-by-mail ballots a misdemeanor
“We’ve seen how they abused ballot harvesting,” DeSantis said. “We banned ballot harvesting, but they only counted it as a misdemeanor. We’re going to make sure ballot harvesting is a third-degree felony in the state of Florida.”
Although Wednesday’s event was announced by the governor’s office, it had the look and feel of a campaign rally. Supporters in the audience cheered and pumped their fists. One person, who was apparently objecting, was escorted out of the room by police amid boos from the crowd.
DeSantis also said he wanted to change the state’s laws on ballot drop boxes. In 2019, he signed a bill into law permitting the use of drop boxes, but as they became popular during the pandemic, he changed his mind. The bill he signed this year restricted their use to early voting hours, unless they were at a supervisor’s office, and required that they must be attended by elections staff at all times.
“They would take these drop boxes, and they put them in all kinds of crazy locations,” DeSantis said. “I think that there needs to be more reforms on this. First of all, I don’t even think we should have drop boxes, to be honest with you.”
Wednesday’s event was held in the same Hilton hotel where DeSantis signed an elections reform bill during an exclusive event for Fox News six months ago. The hotel is a 7-minute drive from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.
Florida’s 2020 election was hailed as a success, with only one prosecuted instance of voter fraud — a former Republican state senator accused of illegally recruiting and paying an acquaintance to run in a state senate race, siphoning away votes from the Democrat and helping the Republican win.
DeSantis and the GOP-controlled Legislature pushed through a contentious, though heavily watered down, series of voting reforms in response. DeSantis said during the bill signing that Senate Bill 90 carried “the strongest election integrity measures in the country.”
The changes were mostly administrative and did not go as far as DeSantis and some Republicans wanted, but lawmakers did make it slightly tougher to request a vote-by-mail ballot, and they shortened the time frame for vote-by-mail requests from four years to two years. They also outlawed the collection of mail-in ballots, which was already illegal in Miami-Dade County.
The continuing claims by politicians about perceived election fraud prompted the bipartisan group representing Florida’s elections supervisors to issue an unusual plea to “tone down the rhetoric” last month.
“Instead of standing idly by, we ask all candidates and elected officials to tone down the rhetoric and stand up for our democracy,” they wrote.
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.