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Florida Republicans scale down Gov. DeSantis' elections police proposal

Tom Hagerty

Legislation further tightening Florida’s voting laws made it through its first committee stop this week. It includes one of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ priorities: the inclusion of a 15-person group of investigators to examine possible voting crimes.

The measure establishes an Office of Election Crimes and Security - a slimmed-down version of Gov. Ron DeSantis's “elections police” proposal.

That provision and others have drawn concern from supervisors of elections and from third-party groups.

“Of course we need to think about our history in the state of Florida and the history in the South where law enforcement was often used to intimidate and scare Black and brown communities, sometimes beating them, threatening them. So going back to having a special elections police force is not a good look,” said Florida League of Women Voters President Cecile Scoon.

Four residents in the Villagers were arrested for casting more than one ballot in support of former President Donald Trump. But Sen. Travis Hutson, the Republican sponsor of the bill, said there’s more alleged voter fraud than that.

“These supervisors told me there’s been about a handful so it’s not just four people, there’s more as you go further and further and ask your supervisors if they have any of that,” he said.

Among that fraud—issues of dark money and ghost candidates—an issue that arose during the last election cycle when GOP operatives allegedly planted a ghost candidate in a state Senate race to siphon votes away from the Democratic candidate. The elections security office would not investigate such issues. Prosecutors have since widened their probe to top Republican and Democratic operatives.

“If it’s illegal, they shouldn’t be doing that. So if you want to add more protections and provisions in there, we can certainly look at that,” said Hutson.

The bill also requires voters to include the last four digits of their Social Security number or voter ID number on their vote-by-mail certificates starting in 2024. Hutson says these new security requirements are needed as part of increased fraud protection efforts. Yet Lake County Supervisor of Elections Alan Hays, a former Republican state lawmaker, calls that provision a “recipe for disaster.”

“That issue alone is going to require us to spend more money on envelopes, it’s going to require more postage going out, it’s going to require more postage going in. And it’s going to add another step to the processing, it’s going to slow the processing down. I can’t think of anything good to come from it.”

The measure raises the cap on fines for third-party voter registration groups; it requires more frequent purges of voter registration lists and increases penalties for what’s known as ballot harvesting–collecting and turning in ballots on behalf of other voters.

Democratic Senator and gubernatorial candidate Annette Taddeo proposed several amendments to the bill, all of which failed along party lines. One of them would have fined someone with a third-party organization $10,000 if they alter a voter’s party affiliation without their consent.

Hutson says he’s open to working with Taddeo on that amendment as the bill moves to its next committee stop.

Sarah Mueller is a journalist who has worked for media outlets in several states since 2010. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2010 and worked as a print reporter covering local government and politics.