DeSantis’ new election crimes office: 52 positions and ‘unprecedented’ authority

The number of positions would be far more than Jacksonville police assign to investigate homicides.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks as House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy listens during a news conference at the Assault Brigade 2506 Honorary Museum on Aug. 5 in Hialeah.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks as House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy listens during a news conference at the Assault Brigade 2506 Honorary Museum on Aug. 5 in Hialeah. [ JOE RAEDLE | Getty Images North America ]
Published Dec. 20, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Earlier this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed off on several contentious changes to Florida’s election laws, limiting the use of ballot drop boxes and mail-in ballots.

But after facing accusations from the GOP base that he still isn’t doing enough to support former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud, DeSantis is proposing a new investigative unit to enforce election laws.

And he wants to hire a staff larger than most police departments have to solve murders.

The new Office of Election Crime and Security, likely the first of its kind in any state, would give DeSantis and future governors unprecedented authority over election-related investigations. It would employ 45 investigators and have a $5.7 million budget and a broad mandate to look into violations of state election law and election “irregularities.”

The office would report to Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who is appointed by the governor to oversee elections, and would have the power to take control over any investigation conducted by local police or prosecutors.

DeSantis wants state lawmakers to approve the office and its funding when they return to Tallahassee for their annual legislative session next month.

Under pressure to conduct an audit of the 2020 election results, DeSantis has been called out by a Tallahassee billboard and threatened with a primary challenge in next year’s governor’s race by Roger Stone, a former Trump confidant. But Democrats have blasted the idea of an election crimes office as a partisan ploy to shore up his conservative credentials with his own party.

“What in the world are 52 investigators going to do all year long? Wait for the phone to ring?” said Andrew Warren, Hillsborough County’s state attorney.

Even some Republicans appear lukewarm to the idea. Even though the office was proposed in November, no bill has been drafted yet. Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who chairs the Senate’s Ethics and Elections Committee that would likely hear the legislation, said he would “take seriously” the governor’s proposal, but was approaching it cautiously.

“I’m always hesitant to make changes to the system in an election year,” Baxley said. “We haven’t even played out what we did last session.”

Baxley’s counterpart in the Florida House of Representatives, Rep. Danny Perez, R-Miami, did not respond to requests for comment.

DeSantis said the new office is necessary because local police and prosecutors aren’t doing enough to prosecute election-related crimes.

“Some of these counties, some of them will do the cases, but that’s not their expertise,” DeSantis said during an event last month. “They have all these other crimes to deal with. So by the time it happens, the election’s already over.

“Some just don’t want to deal with it at all.”

Although voter fraud is extremely rare, news of three arrests for that crime were announced shortly after DeSantis announced plans for the office. Three residents of The Villages were arrested over the last two weeks for casting more than one ballot in the 2020 election, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Two were registered Republicans, while the third had no party affiliation.

If approved, the new office would be the first in any state dedicated to investigating and prosecuting election-related crimes, said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, which promotes legislation restricting voting access.

Von Spakovsky, a polarizing figure in the world of voting rights who was on Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, likes the idea of an Office of Election Crime and Security.

“I think other states ought to follow what Florida is doing,” he said.

The unit would be staffed with 52 positions, including 20 law enforcement investigators and 25 civilian investigators. Their cases would be prosecuted by the Office of Statewide Prosecution within the Attorney General’s office. DeSantis is proposing six new positions there to prosecute those cases, along with a $901,000 budget.

Their “sole job,” DeSantis said, would be to investigate election-related crimes and “election irregularities,” including possible violations of the voting measures passed this year. Those measures included preventing people from possessing more than two vote-by-mail ballots at a time and banning so-called “ballot harvesting” that has been at the source of many election fraud scandals in Miami-Dade and other parts of the state.

“If someone’s ballot harvesting, you report it to these people,” DeSantis said last month.

But prosecutors say the office would be absurdly large for the number of voter fraud cases that occur.

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, for example, which polices the nation’s 12th-largest city, assigned 30 detectives and supervisors to investigate 178 homicides last year. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, the largest police force in Tampa Bay, has 18 officers who investigated 49 homicides last year.

Homicides are far more intensive cases, often resulting in first- and second-degree felony charges, life sentences or capital punishment. Election-related crimes are third-degree felonies — the lowest kind, with up to five years in prison — or misdemeanors.

Last year, the busiest election year on record for the state, the Secretary of State received 262 elections fraud complaint forms and referred 75 to local law enforcement, according to its website. That’s in a year during which 18.1 million ballots were cast in statewide primaries and the general election that included nearly 300 races. This total doesn’t include the millions of additional votes cast across Florida in the hundreds of local contests.

Of those 75 referred cases, the allegations are unclear; the Secretary of State has not yet responded to a request from the Times/Herald to view the referrals.

Warren, the Hillsborough state attorney, said his office has only received four referrals for election-related crimes in the last decade. His office has, at any given time, between 8 to 10 investigators to handle 70,000 cases each year. (Most investigations are conducted by local police.)

Palm Beach County Chief Assistant State Attorney Alan Johnson called the size of the 52-person team “swatting a mosquito with a sledgehammer.” He noted that election-related crime “is, in fact, rare.”

With so few cases of fraud, he implied an office of that size could abuse its authority, saying that it “would feel pressure to go out and create its own cases without predicate complaints of wrongdoing.”

The governor’s office did not respond to questions about how it arrived at the number of proposed investigators for the office.

Regardless of the cases’ merit, DeSantis’ proposal would would allow the Office of Election Crime and Security to “assert primary jurisdiction,” or take control, over any local investigation.

If DeSantis wanted to take control of voter fraud crimes, he could do so for a fraction of the cost by simply ordering the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to assume control of the cases, Johnson said.

Michael T. Morley, an elections law professor at Florida State University, said there is “very limited evidence” of voter fraud, but there has been a national effort to police elections from a statewide level.

In Texas, Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has repeatedly spread the myth of widespread voter fraud, has added six staffers and $2.2 million to the budget of the state’s election integrity unit, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Yet records from that office show the unit’s workload has been minimal, uncovering no evidence of widespread fraud during the 2020 election, in which more than 11 million Texans voted. It closed just three cases this year, 14 fewer than the year before, and opened just seven new cases, according to the Chronicle.

Morley said creating an election integrity office could bolster confidence in elections.

“The best case scenario is you have people looking for it, and they don’t find it, so you have people finding safe, secure elections,” Morley said.

While there is no evidence of a widespread conspiracy to rig elections like the kind Trump alleges, individual fraud sometimes happens and has affected the outcome of close down-ballot races in Florida.

Local prosecutors have a mixed track record when it comes to pursuing election-related crimes.

During the 2016 election, police in Palm Beach County found an aide to state Sen. Bobby Powell, a Democrat, dropped off bundles of vote-by-mail ballot request forms. Investigators also identified at least six fraudulent ballots that were submitted. Reporters from the Palm Beach Post interviewed residents who complained that politicians came to their door and pressured them to submit their ballots, in some cases filling out and signing the ballots on voters’ behalf.

State Attorney Dave Aronberg, a Democrat, spearheaded a team of 13 detectives to investigate the claims, but the detectives never interviewed Powell, his aide or the residents interviewed by the Post. No charges were brought in the case. Powell denied any wrongdoing.

“There is no evidence that any vote-by-mail ballots were compromised,” Johnson wrote in a memo to Aronberg afterward. “Although the investigation found that there were 14 potentially fraudulent requests for ballots, no suspect was identified as participating in the fraud.”

This year, the most significant case of election-related fraud is being pursued in Miami-Dade County, where prosecutors have accused a former Republican state senator of paying an acquaintance to run in a state Senate race.

Seminole County State Attorney Phil Archer, a Republican, was also tipped off to a similar scheme there, but he initially declined to pursue the case.