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DeSantis signs a bill that creates a new elections crime unit, into law

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses a joint session of a legislative session, Jan. 11, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Phelan M. Ebenhack
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses a joint session of a legislative session, Jan. 11, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed a measure into law establishing the nation’s first election crimes investigation unit.

“We just want to make sure that whatever laws are on the books that those laws are enforced,” DeSantis said during a signing ceremony in Hernando County on Monday. “I think if people know that we’re going to enforce the law, then everybody will be very happy.”

The legislation creates the “Office of Election Crimes and Security” within the Florida Department of State. Republican lawmakers passed a budget that allocates about $1.1 million for the office and creates 15 positions within it, though DeSantis hasn’t yet signed next year’s spending plan.

DeSantis says he expects the new office will make it easier for the state to stop election-related crimes. “When people see something that they think might violate the law, if you call the supervisors of elections, well they’re not investigators,” he said. “You call a state attorney’s office, they do other crimes. Some of them might not care about the elections.”

Democratic lawmakers say the new task force unit is unnecessary and adds perpetuates the myth of widespread voter fraud.

“Instead of working to increase access to the polls, Governor DeSantis continues to prioritize disinformation and feed into lies that the 2020 elections were not accurate,” wrote Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) in a statement soon after the signing ceremony. “DeSantis would rather make it harder to vote than actually meet the needs of all Floridians.”

Rep. Traci Davis (D-Jacksonville) wrote in a statement that funding for the election crimes task force would be better spent to help county election offices with “educating voters while conducting fair, accurate, and accessible elections.”

“DeSantis’ so-called election reform legislation is a continued attack by the Republican Party to generate public distrust in the integrity of our elections,” Davis wrote. “The bill is unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer funds.

DeSantis praised the way the state’s elections were handled in 2020. Still GOP lawmakers started passing measures last year to tighten the state’s voting laws.

For instance, legislation enacted last year requires absentee voters to request a mail-in ballot every two years instead of every four years. It also requires them to include identification numbers with their request. Florida voters must provide elections offices with that information when they register.

They also strengthen requirements for drop boxes, that were recently struck down in federal court. Other provisions that were struck down include a ban on “line warming” activities, which means providing food, drinks, weather gear and other supplies to people waiting to vote.

A recent ban on ballot harvesting, which is when one person collects multiple ballots from voters and deliver them to a ballot drop box or county elections office, is another new crime that the new investigation unit would prosecute.

Leon County's Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley, who's also a Democrat, explains that the investigation task force is could prove somewhat helpful, even though elections crimes are relatively rare.

But Earley says he’s concerned about other aspects of creating a new task force. For instance, he's seen a lot of false information circulating about the 2020 presidential election being stolen and voter fraud being rampant among vote-by-mail voters. He says creating an election crimes unit could add credibility to those myths.

“That misinformation and disinformation coupled with this new election crimes task force and no prohibition against frivolous claims of fraud can really further this disinformation campaign and get in the way of us conducting elections.”

Earley says lawmakers should add penalties for those who lodge “frivolous complaints.”

“Really there’s no parameters set up currently in the statute that precludes anybody from making any complaint about anything over and over,” Earley said. “That starts filling up the the to-do list of this task force and that can create more problems than it solves.”

Valerie Crowder is a freelance journalist based in Tallahassee, Fl. She's the former ATC host/government reporter for WFSU News. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.