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The Florida House and Senate are closer to approving changes to elections

VOTE HERE SIGN placed on the walkway to a neighborhood polling place in Ft Lauderdale, FL
JILLIANCAINPHOTOGRAPHY/Jillian Cain
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Republicans say the changes to Florida's election laws are necessary, despite a largely problem-free Election Day in 2020 that saw former President Donald Trump easily win the state.

Florida House and Senate Republicans could be ready to pass an elections plan that includes creating a new state office to investigate voting irregularities, boosting penalties for wrongdoing and looking at changes in the vote-by-mail system.

The House Appropriations Committee on Monday approved a revamped elections bill (HB 7061) that mirrors changes in a Senate version (SB 524). Republicans argue the proposals are needed to prevent election fraud, a major theme of the GOP since former President Donald Trump lost his 2020 bid for a second term.

“This is a vote for resources into the elections process, for additional manpower into the election integrity process,” House sponsor Daniel Perez, R-Miami, said before the Appropriations Committee vote.

But Democrats questioned the need for steps such as creating an Office of Election Crimes and Security in the Department of State. They disputed that the state has evidence of widespread voter fraud, particularly after a successful 2020 election in Florida.

“My concern, very candidly, is that we are making this change not based on data, not based on information, but based on politics,” Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, said.

The bills are ready to go to the full House and Senate, as the legislative session nears its scheduled March 11 end.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has made a priority of creating the Office of Election Crimes and Security, which Perez said would include 15 employees. Also, the House and Senate bills would require the governor, working with the commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, to appoint special FDLE officers to investigate allegations of election violations, with at least one officer in each region of the state.

“The whole purpose of this (creating the new office) is to make sure that we have the additional resources to make sure that we support the supervisor of elections locally so that they can carry out their job duties,” Perez said.

But Abdelilah Skhir, voting rights policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, raised concerns about creating an “elections police” and about the possibility that the new office could be politicized.

The bills also would ratchet up financial and criminal penalties for violating elections laws, such as what has become known as “ballot harvesting,” which can include collecting and delivering vote-by-mail ballots for multiple people. The penalty for ballot harvesting would increase, under the bills, from a first-degree misdemeanor to a third-degree felony.

“I want to make sure that there is no fraud, and that is our goal,” Perez said.

But Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, questioned whether people could face felony charges for, as an example, delivering vote-by-mail ballots for elderly neighbors.

“Do you really want to extend the felony tag to something that’s really that inadvertent?” Geller asked.

“Yes,” Perez responded.

The House committee scaled back part of the bill that would have required people to use an additional envelope for mail-in ballots and include the last four digits of their driver’s license numbers, Social Security number or state identification numbers — whichever number is on file with election supervisors’ offices. Critics had said such requirements would confuse voters.

The revised bill would direct the secretary of state to work on a plan to “prescribe the use of a Florida driver license number, Florida identification card number, Social Security number, or any part thereof to confirm the identity of each elector returning a vote-by-mail ballot.” The secretary of state would have to submit the plan by Jan. 1.

The Senate made a similar change last week to its bill.

The proposals came after Republican lawmakers last year passed a controversial elections law that included changes in the vote-by-mail process. Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker is considering constitutional challenges that voting-right groups filed against the law.