DeSantis signs additional voting restrictions into law before cheering crowd

Measure creates civilian-law enforcement elections-fraud squad

By: - April 25, 2022 6:37 pm

Polling place in Florida’s state capital, on primary election day, Aug. 18, 2020. Credit: Diane Rado.

For the second year in a row, Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed legislation clamping down on alleged election-fraud by making it harder for voter registration groups to operate and imposing stiff penalties for “ballot harvesting.”

This year’s version (SB 524) builds on legislation (SB 90) that DeSantis pushed through the Legislature in 2021.

It makes “ballot harvesting” —delivering mail-in ballots belonging to anyone except the single voter and immediate family members — a third-degree felony punishable by five years in prison and $5,000 in fines. Voting rights groups have long used the process in get-out-the-vote efforts but DeSantis demonized it after 2020.

The maximum annual penalty for voter-registration organizations that file registration forms late with election officials rises under the new law from the maximum $1,000 under the old 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; DeSantis calls the money “Zuckerbucks.”

And it creates an Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Florida Department of State with 15 civilian workers to look into reports of voting fraud including anonymous allegations made through a hot line. Another 10 Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents would be dedicated to such cases.

During a ceremony before a cheering crowd at a sports bar in Spring Hill, the governor bragged, as he has in the past, about how well Florida ran its 2020 elections, during which Donald Trump carried the state although losing the national vote.

“But there’s a lot that needs to be addressed. So, we weren’t just going to sit there and say, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve got everything figured out,’” he said.

DeSantis left without taking questions from the press.

Legislative Democrats denounced the new law.

“No Floridian should fear reprisal from an unaccountable agency with a nebulous mission simply because they wanted to register their fellow citizens to vote or help a neighbor turn in their mail ballot. We should be doing everything in our power to make it easier for our fellow Floridians to vote, yet this bill is another example in a years-long campaign to undermine that right,” House member Susan Valdés said in a written statement.

“Its implementation will put up additional barriers to voting and targets communities of color. This bullying tactic will intimidate and immobilize workers, families, and everyday people,” said Democrat Yvonne Hinson, representing parts of Alachua and Marion counties.

“Another bill to suppress the vote. Why are the Republicans so afraid of the judgement of the citizens?” said Democrat Joe Geller, representing parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

The earlier law imposed restrictions on drop boxes for mail-in ballots; banned “line warming,” or giving food, water, and other support to people waiting to vote; and required voter-registration groups to warn people that the groups might miss deadlines for filing forms with elections officials.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled that law unconstitutional and a violation of the Voting Rights Act on March 31 for seeking to reduce turnout by Black voters. He called it a “cynical effort” in line with anti-Black voting restrictions extending back for 20 years in Florida.

Walker ordered the state to submit any changes in voting law for preapproval by the U.S. Department of Justice or the courts for the next decade.

The ruling is still under appeal.

DeSantis alluded to the ruling on Monday, saying, ‘They’re trying to mess with us in court,” but predicted the state would win on appeal.

The bill DeSantis signed on Monday featured in the litigation over SB 90. The new law repealed SB 90’s requirement that voting registration canvassers issue those warnings orally, instead requiring them printed on the forms themselves.

Walker cited that as an example of states changing voting restrictions once they’ve been challenged in court to move the goalposts. In other words, as an example of why he ordered the state to submit to preclearance of its voting laws. “In sum, without preclearance, Florida can pass unconstitutional restrictions like the registration disclaimer with impunity,” Walker wrote.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.