The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democratic alarms sound over DeSantis’s new elections overseer

Cord Byrd is pictured in March 2020 when he was a state representative in Florida. He was appointed secretary of state this spring by Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Steve Cannon/AP)
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The once-sleepy job of secretary of state — and chief election overseer — was revealed as enormously important to our democracy when Donald Trump’s assault on the 2020 election results commenced. Now several Trump-aligned candidates are vying for secretary of state positions across the country, prompting concerns that election results might actually be manipulated.

But here in Florida, a Trumpian bureaucrat is already in the job, thanks to his recent installation by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. That’s disturbing in a state where political races are often too close to call and vote recounts are routine.

Meet Cord Byrd, who was a hard-right Republican member of the state House before his appointment in May and state Senate confirmation. DeSantis celebrated him as “an ally of freedom and democracy.”

But Byrd sounds a little uncertain about the 2020 election results. Asked if Joe Biden won the election, Byrd said, “He was certified as the president and he is the president of the United States,” adding, “There were irregularities in certain states.”

What Byrd didn’t say is that Biden won the election.

Byrd’s appointment immediately set off alarms among Democrats.

Florida state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat, tweeted that the state needs a secretary of state whose “top priority is free and fair elections, not a hyper-partisan GOP loyalist who takes orders from Ron DeSantis. Our right to vote is sacred and I worry about what this could mean for our democracy.”

Because Florida’s secretary of state serves at the governor’s pleasure, a political kinship between the two is a given. This can stir suspicion. “The Florida secretary of state has a constituency of one — and that is the governor,” Daniel A. Smith, a professor and chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Florida, told me. “And we have a governor who is a micromanager.”

Especially worrisome: DeSantis dreamed up an election police force this year devoted to ferreting out voter fraud and other election crimes, and Byrd is in charge of the 15 civilian investigators and as many as 10 Florida Department of Law Enforcement Officers.

That doesn’t sit well with Ion Sancho, a retired longtime election supervisor for Leon County. “They have independent authority to police under the direction of the governor,” Sancho told me.

Byrd’s wife, Esther, is politically radical, too, a would-be Virginia Thomas the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas who actively pressed Trump officials and friends to derail Biden’s victory.

In online posts (since deleted) soon after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, Esther Byrd wrote, “In the coming civil wars ... there are only 2 teams … With Us [or] Against Us” and “ANTIFA and BLM can burn and loot buildings and violently attack police and citizens. But when Trump supporters peacefully protest, suddenly ‘Law and Order’ is all they can talk about!”

This spring, DeSantis appointed her to the state board of education.

You might not be shocked to learn that she and her husband were photographed in 2020 on a boat flying a QAnon flag. Byrd has said he has never been a QAnon follower: “Unequivocally no.” He also pointed out he was on 20 different boats that day.

As for fears that partisanship will cloud his decisions on the job, Byrd replied, “I take my oath very seriously.”

But he is as hard-right as his governor. Byrd’s website is called Florida Gun Lawyer. And as state House member, he helped turned many of DeSantis’s most radical ideas into high-profile culture-war bills involving race, education and gay rights.

As a lawmaker, Byrd also supported changes in voting laws, making it harder to use ballot drop boxes and register via third parties. A federal judge blocked the law in March, saying it ran “roughshod over the right to vote.” A higher federal court has since reinstated the law.

County election supervisors who answer to Byrd vehemently opposed the vague and confusing law, which they viewed as unnecessary.

“We went from holding the most successful election” — in 2020 — “to, ‘Oh, we have to fix things,’ ” Lori Edwards, a Democrat and the Polk County supervisor of elections, told me.

With the upcoming August primary, Edwards and other supervisors are trying their best to stay optimistic. But it’s hard not to fret. MAGA fanatics have trampled democratic integrity again and again. Why would they stop now?

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