- Florida passed a major election bill creating a new voting crimes office.
- Florida’s new legislation shows how GOP-controlled states are continuing to chase voter fraud.
- Republican-controlled states are moving ahead with new laws that restrict the election process.
Florida lawmakers passed legislation creating a new office dedicated to investigating election crimes, signaling how Republican state legislatures are still working hard to chase the elusive threat of widespread voter fraud ahead of the 2022 midterms.
The Florida House of Representatives approved the measure, Senate Bill 524, and sent it to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk for a signature Wednesday evening by a vote of 76-41.
The bill, sponsored by GOP Sen. Travis Hutson, is more modest in scope than Senate Bill 90, the omnibus voting and election bill Florida passed in 2021 that tightened access to mail-in voting and ballot drop boxes and imposed new restrictions on election officials.
The new legislation does, however, create a first-of-its-kind Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Department of State, assigning investigators to run the state’s voter fraud hotline, field reports of possible fraud, and proactively investigate possible instances of election fraud and other election wrongdoing.
The purview, staffing, and budget of the office are all significantly scaled back from what DeSantis originally proposed in late 2021, but still achieves one of his agenda items.
The legislation further requires election officials to conduct annual instead of biennial maintenance of voter rolls, increases criminal penalties for returning another a non-family member’s ballot, bans ranked-choice voting, and tightens restrictions on third-party voter registration and petition drives, partly in response to recent reports of Miami voters having their party affiliations switched without their permission.
Florida’s new legislation reflects how GOP-controlled state legislatures, including other swing states like Arizona, are plowing ahead with new laws changing how elections are run. This comes even after costly Republican-led ballot reviews in states like Arizona and Wisconsin drummed up calls for jailing election officials but failed to turn up any evidence of widespread fraud in 2020.
Daniel Griffith, policy director at the nonpartisan group Secure Democracy USA, told Insider the bill is unlikely to bolster accessibility or transparency in Florida’s already well-run elections that DeSantis lauded in 2020, but “does several things that increase challenges for voters and hard-working election officials and sow doubt in Florida’s elections.”
“Between a vague mandate to establish an Election Crimes & Security Office and new criminal penalties for something as simple as helping an older neighbor or disabled friend cast their vote, this bill raises serious concerns for the future of Florida’s elections,” Griffith said.
GOP-controlled state legislatures are pushing election restrictions
State legislatures went to work changing voting and election laws in 2021, with 46 states passing over 300 bills on voting and elections last year, the Voting Rights Lab found in a February 2022 report. While red and blue states alike made progress in areas like expanding early voting and modernizing mail voting, others rolled back access or tightened restrictions, widening the divide in voting access and election policy between Republican and Democratic-controlled states.
Some advocates and groups like the nonpartisan Voting Rights Lab are more concerned, however, about new laws that inject more partisanship into how votes are counted and impose new civil and criminal punishments onto election officials, a trend some experts have termed election subversion. VRL identified 19 bills passed and enacted in 15 GOP-controlled state legislatures that do just that in 2021, with more coming up in the pipeline for 2022.
“What we’re seeing carry over into 2022 are these bills that don’t necessarily impact ballot access, but impact the way elections are administered,” Liz Avore, VRL’s vice-president for law and policy, told Insider in February. “We’ve seen efforts by legislators to interfere in the elections by sometimes inserting themselves into the election process or the vote-counting process, sometimes by criminalizing election officials.”
Texas, for example, just held its first major primary after its own election overhaul, an election that saw higher-than-normal rates of mail ballots rejected as a result of the law’s new identification requirements, and election officials constrained by the law’s new criminal penalties penalizing officials for promoting mail voting.
Avore said that the upcoming 2022 midterm elections are another reason why states will likely focus more on passing laws that affect how votes are counted and certified.
“It’s difficult to change all those processes around how ballots are cast, so it’s unlikely that we’ll see as much legislation passing this year as we did last year around voter access,” she said. “But when looking towards the 2022 midterms, we’re seeing legislation that is definitely going to impact the way those votes are counted.”
VRL identified over 200 bills introduced in 32 states so far in 2022 that would give partisan officials more control over how votes are counted and elections are certified, initiate partisan reviews of the 2020 election, and create or enhance civil and criminal penalties for election officials — including Florida-style election crime offices.
Hutson and other Republicans have argued the new office is necessary to better secure Florida’s elections, and won’t lead to intimidation of election officials and workers.
But rates of voter fraud both nationwide and in Florida are already exceptionally rare, and officials in other states that have dedicated large amounts of time and resources to hunting down voter fraud have come up short. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s Election Fraud Unit, for example, had a plum $2.2 million budget for 2021 but only closed three cases, the Houston Chronicle reported, down from 17 in 2020.
Some lawmakers and voting advocates have argued a new investigative office is a redundant and poor use of taxpayer money at best, and at worst, could have a chilling effect on voters and election officials.
Florida state Sen. Jeff Brandes, the only Senate Republican to oppose the measure, called it “comical” for 15 investigators “to go after a handful of complaints that will be substantiated” during floor debate.
“When we look at elections and state election systems and how underfunded they are, it is really alarming to see these proposals to dedicate all this funding to prosecuting those underfunded election administrators,” Avore said.