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TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Ron DeSantis’ push to create a new law enforcement arm to police Florida elections is sparking concern among voter outreach organizations and state elections officials worried about how this force could be deployed.
The Republican governor has praised Florida’s election performance in the 2020 presidential contest. But he’s never dismissed claims by former President Donald Trump that he lost the White House due to widespread voter irregularities and fraud last November.
DeSantis’ call for a $5.7 million, 52-person Election Crimes and Security investigative force within the Florida Department of State has emerged as one of his attempts to lift the cloud he, Trump and others have kept swirling around U.S. elections.
Others aren’t so sure.
“This is a solution in search of a problem,” said Orange County Elections Supervisor Bill Cowles who, like most elections professionals, says actual vote fraud rarely occurs and is even less likely to be part of an organized effort.
Just weeks ago, three residents of The Villages retirement community were arrested on charges of voting more than once in the 2020 election. The three retirees, two registered Republicans and a no-party affiliated voter, were charged with third degree felonies for casting a ballot both in Florida and another state.
It wasn’t clear if these residents knew each other. But DeSantis has relied on such isolated reports in advancing more election law changes for lawmakers to consider in January – although the case involving The Villages, a Republican-leaning area, has drawn only modest attention from the governor’s office.
“Multiple voting is unlawful,” said Christina Pushaw, a DeSantis spokeswoman, when told of the arrests. But the large investigative force sought by the governor is attracting more questions.
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While DeSantis said the team will ensure that Florida campaign laws are followed, elections supervisors say it could blur existing legal lines of authority when wrongdoing is suspected.
Other groups that promote expanded voter access and get-out-the-vote efforts fear the proposed office’s targets could be singled out for a variety of reasons — among them, their politics.
Fears of new force
“Gov. DeSantis’ budget request isn’t designed in any way to improve the access, safety or security of elections,” said Carrie Boyd, policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund.
“It’s designed to trap Floridians unjustly in the criminal legal system for trying to participate in democracy, perpetuate false narratives about elections, and then use those false narratives to push for additional restrictions to the ballot,” she said.
DeSantis will be going before Florida voters next fall, seeking a second term as governor. The 2022 midterm elections also will prove decisive in determining the future of Democrat Joe Biden’s presidency and his policies, with Democrats seeking to maintain their tenuous control of the U.S. 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 he signed into law a new voter measure earlier this year that imposes limits on ballot drop boxes, vote-by-mail and the collection of absentee ballots, which critics often deride as ballot harvesting.
The election law was part of a nationwide push by Republican lawmakers in dozens of states to overhaul voting laws following the 2020 elections. Florida’s law is being challenged in federal court as unconstitutional by a host of civil rights and voters’ organizations.
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Similarly, while the governor has promoted his oversight of voting, he has said not addressed lingering suspicion that Florida Republicans captured three state Senate seats last fall with the help of “ghost candidates” on the ballot.
The USA TODAY Network-Florida and other news organizations have reported that three no-party candidates funded by dark money groups did little campaigning, but still managed to siphon away votes that helped lead to GOP victories in close contests.
How it would work
Instead, this month DeSantis formed a better picture of how his proposed investigative office would work, when he included it in his $99.7 billion budget recommendation to lawmakers for next year.
In the governor’s view, the office would field complaints and conduct investigations into alleged violations of any election law. Following that, agents could refer criminal cases to the Office of Statewide Prosecution, housed within Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office, or to a state attorney in the region where the alleged events occurred.
The law enforcement agency would work within the Department of State, whose chief —Secretary of State Laurel Lee — is an appointee of the governor. Those in the office would be authorized to take depositions, issue subpoenas and gather evidence on any suspected violation of election law.
The Election Crimes force would include 20 sworn law enforcement officers and another 25 non-sworn investigators, under the governor’s blueprint.
Lee, the state’s top elections official, has already established an “elections integrity” webpage on her department’s site. The office says it received 262 election fraud complaints last year, and made referrals on 75 of them to law enforcement of prosecutors.
There was no detail immediately available on the kinds of complaints or the status of the legal follow-ups.
When he promoted his idea for the investigative office, DeSantis said it will deter criminal behavior: “If potential violators know they will be held accountable, they will be much less likely to engage in improper conduct in the first place,” he said.
A potential weapon
But some fear it could be turned into a political weapon against groups conducting voter engagement efforts or helping voters register, or even focus on elected officials whose politics are viewed as problematic for DeSantis or his allies.
Once a complaint is made to the Election Crimes force, the subsequent investigation could tie up organizations and individuals at critical points during election season, even if a complaint is found to be not sustainable, advocates say.
“It could really be used to distract and make people spend resources on defense, instead of helping voters get to the polls,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, a frequent DeSantis critic.
DeSantis’ bare-knuckles tactics have fueled concerns from these advocates.
The governor has drawn plenty of criticism for his confrontational approach in opposing mask- and vaccine-mandates in the fight against COVID-19, along with his zeal for taking aggressive stances across a range of culture war policy issues, including bans on critical race theory, new restrictions on transgender athletes, and fortifying law enforcement’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“This is merely a new variation on the nationwide trend of attempting to sabotage elections for partisan gain – only this time, it uses the power of the executive branch to do so,” said Kirk Bailey, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
The governor’s proposal hasn’t yet been turned into legislation; the 2022 session starts Jan. 11. But elections officials say they will be watching to see how lawmakers try to create the new investigative office, and whether some safeguards are built in against potential abuse.
Wesley Wilcox, Marion County elections supervisor and president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections, said he knows that plenty of people call with campaign season tips and complaints that his office often determines are unfounded.
He wonders what will happen is those queries now are directed to the 52-person office standing by to investigate.
“I know that there are a lot of things that need to be fleshed out with this idea,” Wilcox said. “Some things in here, we might like to see done differently. And we know in the Legislature, the last version of a bill often doesn’t look like the first version.”
Cowles, the Orange County supervisor, also worried about the scope of the new investigative force.
“They’re going to come into our communities and investigate. Are we, the supervisors, going to be kept in the loop? Or will they just come in and take on something that the Secretary of State’s office hears about?” Cowles said.
“We really wonder: What do you do with all these people standing by, ready to start investigating?”
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: DeSantis' plan for election police prompts concern from voter groups