At the Leon County Courthouse, 2020 voters could vote early in person or by dropping their ballots in a drop box. Credit: Diane Rado
The Florida House voted final approval on Wednesday to legislation creating an election-fraud investigation unit for Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been campaigning for voting integrity despite widespread agreement that the 2020 elections ran smoothly in the state.
The vote was 76-41. Because the Senate had already approved the bill (SB 524), the measure goes to DeSantis to be signed into law.
Republicans conceded the 2020 elections went well but argued election security is a never-ending priority. They also contended that voter fraud happens all the time in small ways and the state needs a dedicated, specialist team to root it out.
“It’s bills like this that will allow you to knock on 15- or 20- or 25,000 doors and then go home that night and put your head on your pillow and go to sleep safely, soundly, knowing that your voting rights and the voting rights of all your constituents are protected,” said Republican Tommy Gregory, representing parts of Manatee and Sarasota counties.
Some Democrats cast the bill against the history of voter repression, especially against Blacks, dating to the end of Reconstruction.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” said Democrat Geraldine Thompson of Orange County.
“You had voter purges. You can’t vote on college campuses. Felons could not vote until a constitutional amendment was passed here in the state of Florida and then fines and fees came into being to deal with that,” she said.
“It’s not critical race theory — it’s fact. And if we don’t learn from what has happened historically, we will repeat it,” she said. “Look at this bill in the lens of what has happened before.”
The bill creates an Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Florida Department of State comprising 15 civilian workers to look into reports of voting fraud including anonymous allegations made through a hot line, plus 10 Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents scattered statewide, at a cost $3.6 million.
The measure provides for felony penalties for “ballot harvesting” — meaning delivering mail-in ballots belonging to anyone except the single voter — long employed by get-out-the-vote efforts but demonized by DeSantis. However, people could deliver ballots for themselves and immediate family members.
The maximum penalty for voter-registration organizations for filing registration forms late would rise from the maximum $1,000 under existing law to $50,000.
The measure would bar elections administrators from accepting outside contributions in support of voting, in line with GOP outrage at reports that Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg contributed more than $400 million to support election administration, allegedly benefiting Democrats; Gov. DeSantis calls the money “Zuckerbucks.”
The bill drops language that would have required voters to use as many as five envelopes to case main-in ballots in favor of a requirement that the Department of State, which oversees elections, study how to use various forms of identification to make balloting more secure and report back on Feb. 1.
Finally, the measure limits placement of mail-in ballot drop boxes, which it calls “secure ballot intake stations.”
Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried, seeking the Democratic nomination to run against DeSantis, issued a written statement:
“Gov. DeSantis and Republicans in the Florida Legislature are infringing on our fundamental right to vote. This bill creates unnecessary and deliberate barriers to voting. It perpetuates the lie that our elections are not secure. In fact, the few instances of voter fraud we have seen recently have been perpetrated by Republicans and the Republican Party of Florida. Maybe Gov. DeSantis’ new task force should start there.”
Genesis Robinson, political director of of the Equal Ground, an organization seeking to boost Black political power, also issued a statement.
“Yet again, the Republican leadership in the state of Florida has added to their notorious reputation of passing restrictive voter suppression laws with the passage of SB 524,” he said.
“This unnecessary bill that Gov. DeSantis has vowed to sign into law is nothing more than a tool to further insulate Republican political power at the expense of Floridians’ voting rights. This law will create a partisan appointed elections police department, pave the way for voters to be removed from the voting rolls, and further prohibit supervisors of elections from being able to effectively do their job with the support of well-intentioned organizations and donors who desire to see more people engage in our civic process.”
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