Despite opponents’ claims that voter fraud is extremely rare, Florida senators advanced a bill to create an election crimes and voter fraud office and increase punishments. The bill passed by a vote of 23-15 on Friday, largely along party lines, with Republicans voting in favor and Democrats voting against it. Loranne Ausley, a Democrat, said she accidentally voted yes, but that her vote had already been altered.
“Please know that I did not intentionally vote for the bad elections bill, SB 524,” she posted on Twitter. “After nine hours in the chamber today, I pushed the wrong button. It has been changed. A good reason not to debate such important issues after dark.” Jeff Brandes, a Republican state senator, voted against it. The bill would establish an Office of Election Crimes and Security under the Department of State, making Florida one of the first states to have a specialized office to combat election fraud.
The new Tallahassee office will assist the secretary of state in assessing potential election law infractions, initiating independent investigations, and supervising a voter fraud hotline. Under the bill’s provisions, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis would consult with the executive director of the State Department of Law Enforcement to select at least one special officer to examine potential election law infractions in each of the state’s regional offices. The bill also changes the punishment for collecting, holding, or submitting more than two absentee ballots in addition to one’s own from a misdemeanor to a felony for those who do so.
Some opponents, including Brandes, contended that the law is unnecessary since voter fraud is exceedingly rare and that it would duplicate election security efforts already undertaken by the secretary of state, the Department of Law Enforcement, and the attorney general.
“For 15 people to go after what is potentially a handful of complaints that will ultimately be substantiated is just absolutely almost comical,” Brandes said during debate on Friday referring to suggestions to assign 15 investigators to the office. “So I am not going to support this bill today.”
The increased penalty and security presence, according to voting rights groups and other opponents, might scare voters away and intimidate poll workers.
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“Involving law enforcement with this sort of vague mandate obviously creates issues and can have certainly a detrimental effect in terms of the ability of voters to cast ballots if they’re worried about law enforcement involvement,” Daniel Griffith, Secure Democracy USA policy director, told The New York Times. “And it has a detrimental effect on election officials if they’re worried that there’s going to be law enforcement over their shoulder.”
During a discussion on Friday, state Sen. Travis Hutson, the bill’s sponsor, defended the plan, saying the agency will identify more fraud and assist the state in handling more claims. “We did have great elections, the governor mentioned that,” Hutson said. “But I would submit to you that we can always do better.” “I will say there is no voter intimidation or no suppressing votes in this bill.”
The law now proceeds to the Florida House of Representatives, where it may pass as early as next week and be signed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has championed the idea and made election reform a high priority despite the fact that the 2020 election in Florida will be free of major difficulties. While introducing Senate Bill 90, which added extra identification requirements for absentee ballots last April, Republican state Sen. Dennis Baxley called the 2020 election in Florida a “gold standard” for the country. Election reform, according to Baxley, is still required to avert future difficulties.
SB90 was signed into law by DeSantis in May. After a wave of voting restriction measures passed in 19 states last year, the latest legislation in the electoral battleground state could become the first significant election-related bill to pass this year.