TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis wants a new office to investigate elections crimes, and he just might get it.
A state Senate committee advanced a new slate of changes to the state’s election laws on Tuesday that included the creation of a 15-person Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Secretary of State’s Office, which could be the first of its kind in the country.
The 5-3 vote, along party lines, came despite concerns raised by multiple elections supervisors about other provisions in Senate Bill 524. In addition to creating an elections security office, the bill would:
- require supervisors to conduct voter list maintenance every year instead of every two years;
- require voters, beginning on Jan. 1, 2024, to include the last four digits of their Social Security number or voter ID number on their vote-by-mail certificates;
- make the penalty for possessing more than two ballots other than those of a family member a third-degree felony instead of a misdemeanor.
So far, there is no companion bill filed in the Florida House.
The legislation queues up what could be another contentious battle in the Legislature over voting rights, less than a year after lawmakers passed a larger series of reforms that mostly targeted the state’s vote-by-mail process.
Numerous groups sued to stop that legislation last year, claiming it damaged the voting rights of minorities. A federal trial began Monday in Tallahassee and is expected to last at least two weeks.
Florida’s 2020 election went smoothly, but since former President Donald Trump alleged widespread voter fraud that cost him the election, DeSantis has faced pressure from members of his party to audit the election.
He’s responded instead by proposing a new office to investigate “election irregularities,” along with some tougher penalties for election law violations.
DeSantis’ original proposal for the office was considered extreme. He proposed to staff the office with 52 employees, including 20 sworn law enforcement officers and 20 unsworn investigators, a team larger than most police departments have to solve murders.
The office would also have had the ability to take control over any election-related investigation conducted by local authorities.
The Senate’s proposal for an Office of Elections Crime and Security doesn’t go that far. It would employ 15 investigators who are not sworn law enforcement, and it would not preclude local police from investigating election-related crimes.
The governor would also be required to dedicate at least one officer from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement — the state police who report to the governor — in each of the department’s six regions to investigate election fraud. That’s an ability the governor currently possesses.
It also proposes the office report its actions to the Legislature.
Every January, the office would have to report to lawmakers the number of complaints received, investigations initiated, number of cases referred to prosecutors and details about each investigation, including who filed the complaint and the status of the investigation.
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Democratic lawmakers said they were concerned about handing so much power to the governor. But most of the opposition on Tuesday was directed at the other parts of the bill.
Three county elections supervisors told lawmakers they were concerned about several provisions of the bill, especially requiring voters to include parts of their state IDs or Social Security numbers when they turn in their vote-by-mail ballot. Supervisors don’t possess those numbers for all voters, so they can’t use them to verify voters’ identity, they said.
And the bill would require supervisors to add an additional envelope to keep those numbers secret, which was a “recipe for disaster,” according to Lake County Supervisor of Elections Alan Hays.
Hays noted that it will cost more and will lead to more complications for voters, who already often fail to follow the instructions when voting by mail. Starting in 2024, voters who don’t include the numbers would not have their votes counted under the bill.
“If you think they’re going to follow the instructions on all these envelopes, you’ve got another thought coming,” Hays said. “It’s going to slow the processing down. Frankly, I can’t think of anything good to come from it.”
Democratic lawmakers noted that the provisions enhance penalties for crimes that were made illegal less than a year ago.
The legislature made possessing more than two ballots a misdemeanor, which would be increased to a third-degree felony and a maximum 5-year prison sentence this year. They also adopted a $1,000 fine for third-party voter registration groups that don’t properly return a potential voter’s application. That would be increased to a $50,000 fine.
“That’s the first time we had that kind of fine,” said Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton. “We haven’t even given it an opportunity to see if it works.”
Bill sponsor Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, said the purpose of the bill is to improve on past legislation.
“I want to make sure the elections are secure,” Hutson said. “I’m trying to find a clear path and make sure the actual voter is voting.”
The bill would do nothing to address Florida’s biggest case of suspected election fraud in recent years. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office is investigating a case where GOP operatives are suspected of planting a sham candidate in a state Senate race to siphon votes away from a Democratic candidate. Former Republican state Sen. Frank Artiles has been charged with multiple felony counts as part of that inquiry, and prosecutors appear to be extending the probe to top Democratic and Republican operatives.
The fake candidates were funded by an array of “dark money” groups that don’t disclose their donors.
Hutson said Tuesday that the elections security office would not investigate “dark money,” which he said was under the purview of the state’s ethics commission.
The legislation would also require local court clerks to report each month the names of each person convicted of a felony in their records and the amount the person might owe in financial obligations. State lawmakers in 2019 passed a law prohibiting people with felony convictions from voting if they owe court-related debts, such as court fees, criminal fines or restitution to victims.
The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles would also have to provide to the Department of State a list of people who “present evidence of non-United States citizenship” when they get a driver’s license or ID card. Noncitizens are not allowed to vote.
The legislation would also prohibit ranked-choice voting, in which voters rank their choices by preference, in any state or local election. Hutson said he wanted to ban it after hearing about Sarasota County considering adopting it.
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