TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida lawmakers on Wednesday passed a voting law package that would create a police force dedicated to the pursuit of election crimes, a proposal pushed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The GOP-controlled House approved the measure on a party-line vote with Republicans in support. The bill now heads to the governor’s office, where it is expected to be signed into law.
DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, called for an election police unit in a speech last year when he referenced unspecified cases of fraud. Such allegations have become popular in parts of the GOP that have embraced former President Donald Trump’s false claims that his reelection was stolen due to widespread fraud.
Voter fraud is rare and generally detected. An Associated Press investigation of every potential case of voter fraud in the six battleground states disputed by Trump — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — found fewer than 475 cases out of 25.5 million ballots cast. There is also consensus among election officials and experts that there was no fraud that could have impacted results in the last presidential election.
The bill would create an Office of Election Crimes and Security under the Florida Department of State that would review fraud allegations and conduct preliminary investigations. DeSantis would be required to appoint a group of special officers from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who would be tasked with pursuing the election law violations.
State law currently allows the governor to appoint officers to investigate violations of election law but does not require him to do so.
"You’re not going to maintain the gold standard of election integrity if you don’t constantly address the different ways that criminals will look to exploit loopholes in the system," said Rep. Tommy Gregory, a Republican.
Over about two hours of debate Wednesday, Democrats argued that the measure would weaken confidence in the electoral system, given the rare occurrence of voter fraud.
"What bills like this do is say there’s a problem with our elections system that we’re trying to solve," said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Democrat. "It perpetuates this concept that they shouldn’t be able to trust what happens in government. This is a monster that will eat us alive if we let it."
The proposal also would increase penalties for the collection of completed ballots by a third party, often referred to as ballot harvesting, to a felony. It would raise fines for certain election law violations and election supervisors would need to more frequently conduct maintenance of their voter lists, under the measure.
Critics have said the bill is intended as a way for DeSantis to appease Republicans who believe the 2020 Election results were fraudulent and that it is unnecessary, noting that local prosecutors can handle fraud cases.
"It is very clearly an attempt to satiate a certain sector of the base that has been bombarded with misinformation about the 2020 Election and the Big Lie," said Brad Ashwell, Florida state director of the advocacy group All Voting is Local.
Trump’s false claims of fraud have led to a wave of voting restrictions in Republican-controlled states.
Last year, DeSantis signed a bill that put new rules on ballot drop boxes and required a driver’s license number, state ID number or last four digits of a Social Security number to request a mail ballot, among other things. That law is the subject of a federal trial after a challenge from voting rights groups.