WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A plan by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis would establish a special police force to oversee state elections — the first of its kind in the nation — and while his fellow Republicans have reacted tepidly, voting rights advocates fear that it will become law and be used to intimidate voters.
The proposed Office of Election Crimes and Security would be part of the Department of State, which answers to the governor. DeSantis is asking the GOP-controlled legislature to allocate nearly $6 million to hire 52 people to “investigate, detect, apprehend, and arrest anyone for an alleged violation” of election laws. They would be stationed at unspecified “field offices throughout the state” and act on tips from “government officials or any other person.”
DeSantis highlighted his plan as legislators opened their annual 60-day session last week.
“To ensure that elections are conducted in accordance with the rule of law, I propose an election integrity unit whose sole focus will be the enforcement of Florida’s election laws,” he said during his State of the State address. “This will facilitate the faithful enforcement of election laws and will provide Floridians with the confidence that their vote will matter.”
Voting rights experts say that no state has such an agency, one dedicated to patrolling elections and empowered to arrest suspected violators. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) announced the formation of a “2021 Texas Election Integrity Unit” in October, but that office is more limited in scope, has fewer than 10 employees and isn’t under the governor’s authority.
“There’s a reason that there’s no office of this size with this kind of unlimited investigative authority in any other state in the country, and it’s because election crimes and voter fraud are just not a problem of that magnitude,” said Jonathan Diaz, a voting rights lawyer at the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center. “My number one concern is that this is going to be used as a tool to harass or intimidate civic-engagement organizations and voters.”
Florida’s congressional Democrats expressed similar worries when they asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate “a disturbing rise in partisan efforts at voter suppression” in the state. They took aim specifically at DeSantis’s call for election police.
“Harmful proposals to create new partisan bodies to oversee our voting process are exactly the kind of action that demand oversight as we work to ensure that our voting process is unquestionably trustworthy,” they wrote Thursday in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Unlike many past elections, the 2020 general election in Florida had few problems. The governor touted it as “the gold standard.”
“The way Florida did it, I think, inspired confidence,” DeSantis said on Nov. 4, 2020, hours after the results showed that President Donald Trump had won the state by more than three percentage points. “I think that’s how elections should be run.”
But in the wake of Trump’s ultimate defeat, as he and his supporters spread falsehoods about election fraud nationwide and demanded audits in numerous states, many Republicans in Florida pressed DeSantis to do the same.
Though he resisted an audit, DeSantis signed a controversial bill last year curtailing some voting options that had helped to expand participation. The law — which is being challenged in court, with a trial set to begin Jan. 30 — limits the use of ballot drop boxes, adds requirements to request mail ballots, and bans groups or individuals from gathering absentee ballots on other voters’ behalf.
No legislators have signed on to sponsor DeSantis’s new proposal. House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R) said DeSantis is concerned that existing law enforcement agencies don’t have the expertise necessary to find and prosecute election crimes. Yet he hasn’t embraced the governor’s approach. “We’re going to look at it, we’ll evaluate it and see what happens,” Sprowls said last week.
As with all committees in the Capitol in Tallahassee, Republicans are in the majority on the House Public Integrity & Elections Committee. Neither the committee chairman nor vice chairman returned calls for comment. The panel has not scheduled a hearing on the DeSantis proposal.
Last month, Secretary of State Laurel Lee spoke to a meeting of the Florida Supervisors of Elections association to explain the governor’s plan. Some of the officials who run elections in each of Florida’s 67 counties were alarmed by what they heard. They fear overreach from the executive branch, especially in a year when DeSantis is running for reelection.
Broward County Supervisor of Elections Joe Scott said he’s concerned that the new unit would be “applied in a very partisan way” and certain that his heavily Democratic county would be a target.
“It seems as if this is going to focus on a lot of grass-roots organizations that are out there trying to get people registered to vote, as well as people out there doing petition drives,” Scott said. “I think this is going to lead to people being intimidated if they’re civically involved. I don’t want people to be scared away from doing those kinds of things.”
State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, the ranking Democrat on the House Public Integrity & Elections Committee, thinks the new agency would be a waste of money. In addition to its funding, DeSantis wants $1.1 million for eight new positions in other departments — to address what he describes as a growing caseload of election crimes. The Department of State received 262 election-fraud complaint forms in 2020 and referred 75 to law enforcement or prosecutors. About 11 million Floridians cast ballots for president that November.
“The governor and other officials in Florida said the 2020 election was the most secure and efficiently run election that we ever had,” Thompson said. “So I see absolutely no reason for this elections commission to be established, particularly at the cost that he is proposing.”
Voter fraud is rare, and critics note that state attorneys and local police are already in place to investigate alleged election crimes. The state’s 67 elections supervisors are also trained to look for fraud.
“The bottom line is there is no widespread election fraud in Florida,” said Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, a Democrat. “It’s a microscopic amount. Elections today are the most secure that they have ever been. This is not a serious policy proposal. This is a door prize for a QAnon pep rally.”
Hans von Spakovsky, an election law expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, supports Desantis’s plan and hopes it becomes a “model” for other states. Investigating election fraud requires special training and commitment that are lacking in many law enforcement agencies, he said. The foundation’s database of election fraud cases nationwide shows only three convictions in Florida in the last three years.
Support for the governor’s proposal should be bipartisan, according to DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw.
“Ensuring that every legal vote counts, as Governor DeSantis strives to do, is the opposite of ‘voter suppression,’ ” Pushaw said via email. “We do not understand why any politician, Democrat or Republican, would be opposed to allocating sufficient resources to ensure our election laws are enforced.”
Cecile Scoon, a lawyer who is president of the League of Women Voters Florida, called an elections security force controlled by a governor an alarming concept.
“So to have your own elections SWAT team, that would be under the direction of the secretary of state, who is under the direction of the governor, is not a comfortable feeling,” Scoon said. “Having governmental officials like this, traveling about overlooking elections just to see if there’s something going on, is very chilling, very scary and very reminiscent of past governmental interference that was directed to Black voters.”