DeSantis’ plan for election policing raises concern among voter groups

TALLAHASSEE – Ron DeSantis’ push to create a new branch of law enforcement to the police Florida elections is raising concerns among voter outreach organizations and state election officials over how the Republican governor might deploy this force.

DeSantis praised Florida’s electoral performance in the 2020 presidential election. But he never dismissed former President Donald Trump’s claims that he lost the White House due to widespread irregularities and fraud involving voters last November.

DeSantis’ call for $ 5.7 million investment for 52 people Election crimes and security investigation force within the Florida State Department emerged as one of his attempts to lift the cloud that he, Trump and others continued to swirl around the US election.

Others are not so sure.

“It’s a solution looking for a problem,” said Bill Cowles, Orange County Election Supervisor, who like most election professionals says real voter fraud rarely happens and is. even less likely to be part of an organized effort.

Just a few weeks ago three inhabitants of the Villages community of retirees were arrested for voting more than once in the 2020 election. The three retirees, two registered Republicans and a non-party voter, were charged with third degree crimes for voting in Florida and another state .

It was not clear if these residents knew each other. But DeSantis has relied on such isolated reports to push forward more electoral law changes that lawmakers should consider in January – although the case involving The Villages, a Republican-leaning region, has attracted only modest attention from the governor’s office.

“Multiple voting is illegal,” said Christina Pushaw, spokeswoman for DeSantis, of the arrests. But the great investigative force sought by the governor raises more questions.

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While DeSantis said the team will ensure Florida’s campaign laws are followed, election supervisors say it could blur existing legal lines of authority when wrongdoing is suspected.

Other groups that promote expanded voter access and efforts to gain the vote fear that the proposed office’s targets will be singled out for a variety of reasons, including their politics.

Fears of a new strength

“Gov. DeSantis’ budget request is in no way designed to improve access, safety or security for elections, ”said Carrie Boyd, director of policy for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund.

“It is designed to unfairly trap Floridians in the criminal justice system for trying to participate in democracy, perpetuating false election narratives, and then using those false narratives to push for further restrictions on the ballot,” he said. she declared.

DeSantis will run to voters in Florida next fall, seeking a second term as governor. The 2022 midterm elections will also prove to be decisive in determining the future of Democrat Joe Biden’s presidency and his policies, with Democrats seeking to maintain their tenuous control over the US House and Senate.

the Office of Election Crimes and Security was unveiled by DeSantis in November, at a campaign-style rally in West Palm Beach, the same location where it enacted a new election measure earlier this year that places limits on ballot boxes, postal voting and voting. collecting the postal ballots, that critics often scoff at the harvesting of the ballots.

The election law was part of a nationwide push by Republican lawmakers in dozens of states to revise election laws after the 2020 election. Florida’s law is being challenged in federal court as unconstitutional by a host of organizations. civic and voter rights.

Previous coverage:DeSantis says he wants to create state office to investigate and prosecute election crimes

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Likewise, as the governor encouraged his oversight of the vote, he said he did not respond to lingering suspicions that Florida Republicans won three seats in the state Senate last fall with the help from “ghost candidates” on the ballot.

theUSA TODAY-Florida Networkand other news outlets have reported that three non-party candidates funded by black money groups campaigned little, but still managed to siphon votes that helped GOP wins in close competitions.

How would it work

Instead, this month DeSantis better described how its proposed investigative office would work, when it included it in its $ 99.7 billion budget recommendation to lawmakers for next year.

In the governor’s opinion, the office would handle complaints and investigate alleged violations of any electoral laws. Subsequently, officers could refer criminal cases to the Statewide Prosecution Office, located in the office of the Attorney General of the Republic, Ashley Moody, or to a district attorney in the area where the alleged events take place. are produced.

The law enforcement agency is said to work within the State Department, whose head –Secretary of State Laurel Lee – is appointed by the governor. Officers would be allowed to take depositions, issue subpoenas and gather evidence of any alleged violations of electoral law.

Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, appointed by DeSantis.

The electoral crimes force would include 20 sworn law enforcement officers and 25 other unsworn investigators, according to the governor’s plan.

Lee, the state’s top election official, has already set up an “election integrity” web page on his department’s website. The office said it received 262 complaints of electoral fraud last year and referred 75 of them to law enforcement prosecutors.

No details were immediately available on the types of complaints or the status of legal proceedings.

When promoting his idea for the Bureau of Investigation, DeSantis said it would deter criminal behavior: “If potential offenders know they will be held accountable, they will be much less likely to engage in inappropriate conduct. in the first place, ”he said.

State Representative Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando.

A potential weapon

But some fear this could turn into a political weapon against groups leading voter engagement efforts or helping voters register, or even focusing on elected officials whose policies are seen as problematic for DeSantis or his colleagues. allies.

Once a complaint is lodged with the electoral force, the ensuing investigation could block organizations and individuals at critical points in the election season, even if a complaint turns out to be unviable, advocates say .

“It could really be used to distract and entice people to spend resources on defense, instead of helping voters get to the polls,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, a frequent critic of DeSantis. .

DeSantis’ unarmed tactics fueled the concerns of these defenders.

The governor has drawn widespread criticism for his confrontational approach in opposing mask and vaccine mandates in the fight against COVID-19, as well as for his zeal to take aggressive positions on a range of cultural warfare policy issues , including the prohibition of critical race theory. , new restrictions on transgender athletes and the strengthening of law enforcement response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“This is just a new twist on the national trend of attempting to sabotage elections for partisan purposes – only this time he’s using the power of the executive to do so,” said Kirk Bailey, director. of the policies of the American Civil Liberties Union of. Florida.

The governor’s proposal has not yet been transformed into legislation; the 2022 session begins on January 11. But election officials say they will monitor how lawmakers try to create the new bureau of inquiry and whether safeguards are built in against potential abuse.

Wesley Wilcox, Election Supervisor for Marion County, is separating the trays containing the ballots for different ridings effective November 2, 2020.

Wesley Wilcox, Marion County Election Supervisor and Chairman of Florida Election Supervisors, said he knew many people were calling with campaign advice and complaints his office often found unfounded.

He wonders what will happen if those queries are now directed to the 52-person office that stands ready to investigate.

“I know there are a lot of things that need to be fleshed out with this idea,” Wilcox said. “Some things here, maybe we would like them to be done differently. And we know that in the legislature, the latest version of a bill often does not look like the first version.

Cowles, the Orange County supervisor, was also concerned about the extent of the new investigative force.

“They will come to our communities and investigate. Shall we, the supervisors, be kept informed? Or are they just going to come and deal with something the secretary of state’s office is hearing about? Cowles said.

“We really ask ourselves: what do you do with all these people who are ready to investigate? “

John Kennedy is a reporter for the Florida Capital Bureau of the USA TODAY Network. He can be contacted at, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport

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