TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers say they have a plan to secure Florida’s elections: regular cleaning of the voter rolls, creating an election security force and tougher penalties for election-related crimes.
But Republican lawmakers are finding they’re satisfying few people with their contentious elections proposal, a top DeSantis priority as he beats back calls from the right to audit Florida’s 2020 election.
Democrats have said the legislation will cause voter suppression. Elections supervisors called an earlier version of the bill a “recipe for disaster.” And lawmakers are getting an earful from those on the right who believe there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
“This bill has to go much further than it’s going,” said Raj Doraisamy, a co-founder of Defend Florida, a group that has been going door to door trying to verify the identities of voters over the last year and a half.
Doraisamy and about a dozen others testified in Tallahassee that they were unhappy with the latest changes to Senate Bill 524, which advanced along party lines on Thursday and is set for a full vote by the Florida Senate. Its House companion bill, 7061, has one more committee before reaching the House floor.
Inspired by former President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Floridians have been inspired to launch their own investigations.
Members of Defend Florida and other groups have been meeting with lawmakers, committee staff, DeSantis’ office and anyone who will listen about what they say is widespread fraud in the state’s elections. They said Thursday that the fraud consists of dead people voting, people voting twice and people voting in other states.
Lane Watkins, a poll watcher from Okaloosa County, told senators Thursday he and others have gone door to door and found homes where people with three or four different last names have voted.
“(We) go up there and the people that answer the door say, ‘I’ve never heard of these other people,’” Watkins said. “There are errors in the voter rolls. They need to be cleaned up.”
Elections supervisors, police and prosecutors have disputed the findings, saying the groups have failed to provide evidence of crimes or are mistaking coincidences or normal messiness in voter rolls with fraud.
Dave Ramba, a lobbyist for the Florida Supervisors of Elections, said that while dead people might be on the voter rolls, they are purged regularly, and only one — a Manatee County man who requested a ballot on behalf of his deceased wife — has been found trying to vote.
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After the meeting, Ramba spent more than 30 minutes in the Capitol hallways discussing and debating the issues with members of Defend Florida and other groups.
The sponsor of Senate Bill 524, Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, said that despite being told there were “thousands” of cases of fraud, Defend Florida recently gave him a list of about 200, which he’s now investigating.
He said he’s trying to satisfy the concerns of elections supervisors, who have been against the legislation for administrative reasons, and groups like Defend Florida, who want stronger measures to ferret out fraud.
“Trying to thread that needle is what I’m doing,” Hutson said. “I’m not 100 percent satisfying 100 percent of the people.”
Hutson on Thursday introduced a new version of the bill making concessions to both elections supervisors and, in one case, Democrats. The bill now:
- Drops a plan to require people voting by mail to include the last four digits of their Social Security number or state-issued ID number, which elections supervisors were concerned about. Instead, it requires the Secretary of State to come up with a plan by next year to adopt such a system.
- Requires elections supervisors to conduct voter list maintenance annually, instead of every two years.
- Creates an Office of Election Crimes and Security in the Department of State and assigns state police to assist the office’s investigators.
- Adds a $1,000 penalty for members of third-party voter registration organizations who are convicted of altering someone’s voter registration form without their consent.
The last provision was a response to a growing scandal in Miami-Dade County, in which reporters found some voters’ party affiliations were switched to the Republican Party, many of them without their consent, after interacting with canvassers.
“It was a great catch,” Hutson said of the reporting on the scandal. “We do not want this happening. We’re going to address it.”
Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, who requested the enhanced penalties, said she was “appreciative” it was added. But she said Republicans were still trying to make it harder for minorities to vote by mail. She noted that Republicans took no action to try to enhance vote-by-mail security until Democrats turned to the voting method in droves in 2020.
“They keep passing these bills to suppress voters, to make it more difficult for voters,” Taddeo said, adding that making it less convenient to vote disproportionately affects Black and brown voters who might not have the time or means of transportation to get to voting sites.
Other Democratic senators said the proposed 15-member elections security office was a waste of money considering how few cases of election fraud — 262, with 75 referred to police — were reported to the state in 2020.
In response to Trump’s claims, which were never substantiated, DeSantis advocated for a series of elections reforms last year, making it illegal to possess more than two vote-by-mail ballots in most instances and limiting the use of off-site ballot drop boxes to early voting hours.
DeSantis has praised the state’s performance in the 2020 election, but the Floridians advocating for stronger measures said they weren’t satisfied.
“I know we’re being told that Florida is safe and it’s the gold standard,” said Jacquelyn Dabney of Walton County. “We’re not convinced.”
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