The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Florida lawmakers approve an elections police force, the first of its kind in the U.S.

The measure, pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, adds steeper fines and prison terms for voting practices common in the state until last year

Wilbur Harbin prepares to place his ballot in a vote-by-mail drop box during a special congressional election in Florida in January. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Two months after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed a plan for a powerful elections police force that would answer to him, state lawmakers on Wednesday passed a watered-down version that barely resembles what the governor asked for but still worries voting rights advocates.

DeSantis (R) had asked for nearly $6 million to hire 52 people, including sworn officers, to investigate alleged violations of elections laws. The GOP-led House and Senate instead gave him about $2.5 million for the new Office of Election Crimes and Security.

The agency will be the first of its kind in the nation. Its staff of 25 will be part of the Department of State, which answers to DeSantis. Both chambers approved its creation by wide margins after debate that had Democrats invoking the name of the late civil rights leader John Lewis and a Republican representative making reference to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The governor has indicated he will sign the measure into law.

“It’s drastically improved from what the governor wanted, but I don’t believe we should have an elections police force at all,” said Joe Scott, the elections supervisor in Broward County. “These are people who will be looking for crimes where there are none. That has the potential to intimidate a lot of voters and the organizations who try to help voters.”

The bill also includes harsh repercussions for some voting practices that were common in the state until last year, when the legislature, at the governor’s behest, passed sweeping changes to state elections laws.

One of the most controversial penalties is for “ballot harvesting.” The 2021 law made it a misdemeanor for anyone to have more than two ballots, which impacts efforts at churches and community centers to have volunteers gather ballots and deposit them at an elections office or in a drop box. The bill passed this week raises that to a felony, punishable with a fine of up to $50,000 and five years in prison.

“So now we’re criminalizing certain acts around the elections process that most folks, particularly in the Black community, have long held as a way to assist those in need,” said Genesis Robinson, political director of Equal Ground, a voting rights advocacy group. “To spend time in jail for simply trying to be a good neighbor, that’s a problem.”

The bill requires elections supervisors to cull voter rolls annually instead of every two years and imposes a $1,000 fine for switching a voter’s party registration without their consent.

It also changes the name of drop boxes to “secure ballot intake stations.” The law passed last year, which is being contested in federal court in Tallahassee, limits the number of ballot drop boxes and the times they can be available.

The changes in state election statutes in 2021 and this legislative session followed a 2020 general election that saw few problems. The governor touted it as “the gold standard” that should be followed by other states.

But as former president Donald Trump and his supporters spread falsehoods about election fraud nationwide, many Republicans in Florida pressed DeSantis, who is running for reelection and probably positioning himself for a 2024 presidential campaign, to take some kind of action.

“The whole point of this bill is to deter people from committing fraud,” state Rep. Daniel Perez, a Republican from Miami-Dade County, said during debate on the bill this week. “We’re trying to stop the bad actors.”

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.

“They called it a flawless election, and then they immediately started to change things for the worse,” said Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. “It’s the constant chip, chip, chipping away of voting rights.”

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