Gov. Ron DeSantis and an elections police farce | Editorial
A make-up agency to do make-up work for a made-up problem
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs a Trump hat for David Necker as DeSantis greets the audience after a press conference at R E Olds Park in Oldsmar on Dec. 7, 2021.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs a Trump hat for David Necker as DeSantis greets the audience after a press conference at R E Olds Park in Oldsmar on Dec. 7, 2021. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Dec. 21, 2021

The same governor who brags about the integrity of Florida’s elections now wants a new investigative force to pursue claims of voter fraud. The idea is so preposterous that even Sen. Dennis Baxley — the Ocala Republican who’d play a key role in securing funding for the new office, and who’s concocted his own share of red herrings — questions the need and timing. This is another example of Gov. Ron DeSantis pandering to pro-Trump Republicans who equate losing at the polls with a stolen election. Legislators should reject this idea and support police and prosecutors in fighting real crime.

DeSantis already signed off on several needless changes to Florida’s election laws this year, limiting the use of mail-in and drop-off ballots. But as the Tampa Bay TimesLawrence Mower reports, DeSantis now proposes a new investigative unit to enforce election laws. 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 investigate alleged election law violations and “irregularities.”

Even the Maytag repairman would kill for this job. The inconvenient fact is that election law violations are few, usually accidental and rarely change an election. As Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren wondered: “What in the world are 52 investigators going to do all year long? Wait for the phone to ring?” Locally-elected prosecutors in Florida already have authority to pursue election-related crimes. Warren, for his part, said the Hillsborough office had received only four referrals for election-related crimes in the last decade. Last year, the busiest election year on record for the state, Florida’s Secretary of State received 262 elections fraud complaint forms and referred 75 to local law enforcement. That’s about one referral per county in a year during which 18.1 million ballots were cast in statewide primaries and the general election.

It’s bad enough to waste tax money on a do-nothing agency. But imagine what’s possible from employees justifying their existence with made-up work. The unit would be staffed with 52 positions, including both law enforcement and civilian investigators, and report to the secretary of state, a gubernatorial appointee. Regardless of the cases’ merit, DeSantis’ proposal would allow the Office of Election Crime and Security to “assert primary jurisdiction,” or take control, over any local investigation. The governor’s not only reinventing the wheel. He’s laying the groundwork for partisan prosecutions.

The idea comes in the wake of accusations from the GOP base that the Republican governor hasn’t sufficiently aped former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of widespread voter fraud. Not only are the motivations wrong, but the measure has no sense of scale and no sense of the right law enforcement priorities. The office would be ridiculously large. 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. Florida needs more officers investigating murder, violent crime, missing children, exploitation of the elderly — not conspiracy theories to energize partisan voters.

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Baxley, who chairs the Senate’s Ethics and Elections Committee, is right. Lawmakers should hesitate before changing the election system in an election year. Florida hasn’t even seen the impact of the voting restrictions recently adopted. And if there proves to be a bigger problem with voter fraud, lawmakers can provide more support to the state and federal agencies already on the job.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.