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DeSantis signs controversial voting bill, creates election crimes office

This story was originally published in the Tampa Bay Times.

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis asked the Legislature to create an office within the executive branch that would have the power to investigate and enforce election related crimes.

Republican leaders took his idea, scaled it back and delivered a bill the governor signed into law on Monday.

The sweeping measure, Senate Bill 524:

  • Establishes the 25-person Office of Election Crimes and Security under the Secretary of State’s office to look into voting irregularities or illegalities. (DeSantis initially called for a unit of 45 sworn investigators.)
  • Bans ranked-choice voting statewide, including in cities and counties. In a ranked-choice voting system, voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots rather than selecting just one.
  • Makes a series of tweaks to election procedures and stiffens criminal penalties for certain activities such as “ballot harvesting.” That is the practice of one person or organization collecting a number of completed mail ballots from other people and delivering them to an elections office or drop box.
  • Requires elections supervisors to clean up voter rolls annually, rather than every other year. Cleaning up the voter rolls entails removing deceased persons from the roll, checking the status of inactive voters or voters whose addresses may have changed.

“I don’t think there’s any other place in the country where you should have more confidence that your vote counts than in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said at a bill signing event at Rookies Sports Bar & Grill in Spring Hill.

The push to crack down on election-related crimes comes as former President Donald Trump, the standard-bearer in the Republican Party, continues to mislead the public about the results of the election he lost in 2020. Although Trump has alleged fraud in several swing states, he has produced no hard evidence to show fraud on a scale that would have tipped the election away from the victor, President Joe Biden.

Most of the law’s provisions took effect as soon as the governor’s pen hit paper. That means DeSantis’ own reelection contest in November will be governed by its provisions.

It also enacts a provision affecting Pinellas County that would allow state Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, to run for a county commission seat this election cycle instead of in 2024.

“I will be running for the Pinellas County Commission in 2022,” Latvala said in a text message. “If these arrogant liberals want to sue our great Governor and Legislature to overturn the elections bill, bring it on. It will not be the first time they have wasted our tax dollars.

“They will lose in the courtroom and then at the ballot box.”

Groups that advocate for expanded access to the ballot opposed the bill throughout the legislative process.

Cecile Scoon, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, criticized many of the new policies Monday, including the creation of an election fraud office.

“Our biggest issue is, it’s making voting more burdensome for no good reason. Everyone has stated on the record we have almost no fraud,” Scoon said. “These problems do not exist. We want to spend millions of dollars on problems that do not exist.”

The bill’s passage also comes as the Republican Party of Florida finds itself under the microscope for election fraud-related scandals. Party canvassers have been accused of changing the registration of more than 100 voters in Miami-Dade without their consent.

And in 2020, a no-party candidate who had the same last name as the incumbent Democrat was allegedly paid by a former GOP state senator to run as a spoiler candidate in the Senate District 37 race. Republican Ileana Garcia won that race by 32 votes.

The bill signed by DeSantis addresses some of this behavior, proponents say. The new law increases financial penalties for actors who alter voter registration forms to $1,000 per violation.

But legislators rejected amendments to the bill proposed by Democratic lawmakers aimed at trying to prevent another “ghost candidate” scandal similar to what happened in 2020′s Senate District 37 race.

“That wasn’t the purview of this bill,” Sen. Travis Hutson, a Palm Coast Republican and sponsor of the elections law, told the Orlando Sentinel. “This bill was to deal with election fraud — not candidacy fraud.”

Some aspects of the law are in legal limbo. Last month, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker struck down several parts of the sweeping voting law passed by the Legislature in 2021. He wrote that the state would need approval from a court before passing future restrictions around voting.

The state appealed that decision, arguing the decision amounted to overreach by a partisan judge. (Walker was appointed by former President Barack Obama.)

On Monday, DeSantis said he’s confident the voting policies he’s signed into law will ultimately be cleared by judges.

“We’re going to win on appeal,” he said.