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Florida’s new election police unit is the scariest voter suppression effort yet

DeSantis’s law will sniff out problems that don’t exist.

By Fabiola Cineas, Vox | May 3, 2022

For decades, Florida had a reputation as the state with the nation’s most outstandingly bad voting procedures and Election Day fiascos. This was the state, after all, whose chaotic recount dragged a presidential election on for five weeks in 2000, the one that lost nearly 60,000 ballots in 2004, and then destroyed a county’s physical ballots in 2016, and then had a 2018 midterms debacle that somehow led to yet another round of painfully slow statewide recounts.

By the 2020 presidential election, however, Florida appeared to have worked out the kinks. Bipartisan progress on election reform in the Florida legislature over two decades rectified much of the chaos by expanding voting options and standardizing equipment across the state. More than 11 million Florida voters — or about 77 percent of those registered — cast a ballot in 2020, with millions voting early or by mail, and the state went on to smoothly and quickly tally votes as others looked on with envy. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) publicly bragged about the state’s successful tabulation — “The way Florida did it, I think inspired confidence. I think that’s how elections should be run,” he said at the time — which is why he sent voting rights and election security experts and activists reeling last week when he signed a bill creating an elections police force to curb alleged election crimes and irregularities.

Perhaps the centerpiece of the legislation, the police force — one of the first in the nation — will include 15 staff members who will lead election fraud investigations and 10 police officers who will investigate election crimes, costing taxpayers $3.7 million. It will be housed within the newly established Office of Election Crimes and Security within Florida’s Department of State. Florida has never previously had an office dedicated to the enforcement of election laws; investigations were previously handled by Florida’s secretary of state, the attorney general, and the Department of Law Enforcement.

The legislation is an odd about-face — but not a wholly unexpected one — for a state and governor who praised Florida’s election security and integrity gains. While DeSantis said in a statement last week that the new law is necessary to “do more to ensure our elections remain secure” and that “bad actors are held accountable,” investigations into the voter and election fraud that he and other Republicans allege repeatedly show that fraud is rare. One New York Times investigation, in which reporters called election officials in every state, found no evidence of substantial voter fraud. A separate Associated Press analysis found fewer than 475 possible claims of fraud out of 25.5 million votes cast in six battleground states. Florida’s secretary of state reported receiving 262 fraud complaints in 2020, with just 75 of them referred to law enforcement. The Trump administration’s own Homeland Security officials declared 2020 America’s most secure election in history.

The legislation quickly moved through both chambers of the Florida legislature in March and contains a number of provisions that worry voting and election experts. In lockstep with 2021 Florida election legislation that experts called a sweeping “voter suppression” law because it expanded restrictions on third-party voter registration, mail voting, drop boxes, and activities like handing out food and water to voters in line, the new law will also impose additional fines on those who collect and submit more than two absentee ballots, place more restrictions on drop box voting and voting by mail, and allow for more voter roll purges, among other actions.

The new law adds to a national landscape in which 19 states passed 34 restrictive voting laws just last year. Though a federal judge recently struck down parts of the 2021 Florida law, known as SB 90 (the district court’s ruling is being appealed), on the grounds that it “runs roughshod over the right to vote” and is in line with Florida’s “grotesque history of racial discrimination,” election experts told Vox they believe much damage has already been done. Though signed just last week, the new law, SB 524, has already planted confusion in the minds of voters about new rules and inspired fear in local election workers who want to avoid penalties.

“SB 90 has already made it harder to vote,” said Michelle Kanter Cohen, policy director and senior counsel with Fair Elections Center, a nonpartisan voting rights and elections reform organization. For example, it criminalizes a person dropping off their neighbor’s ballots, even if those neighbors are unable to leave home or infirm, calling it “ballot harvesting.” The new law has upped the penalty.

“This bill doubles down on voter intimidation and barriers to voting, totally moving Florida in the wrong direction,” Kanter Cohen said. “The state should, after what was broadly considered to be a successful 2020 election, be moving toward increasing access to the ballot for Floridians.”

Others see the potential for the new legislation, and DeSantis’s steadfast commitment to the national Republican Party, to spread and inspire other state legislatures.

“Florida is one of a few states creating an elections police force, but I am concerned that there are going to be more states going down this road,” said Daniel Griffith, senior director of policy at Secure Democracy USA, a nonpartisan organization focused on election and voter access. “I want to see what legislatures do in 2023, because I suspect there will be a temptation to do more before the [2024 presidential] election. And I’m very concerned about what that more might look like.”

What Florida’s new election law could actually do

DeSantis and other proponents of the new law have argued that it supports election security, but experts warn that it could have the effect of intimidating and deterring voters, election administration officials, and third-party organizations that help voters navigate elections. The law’s various provisions create a perplexing network of roadblocks on top of last year’s legislation.

What concerns election integrity experts is that DeSantis and his team have not defined nor identified the election crimes and irregularities that they will task the office with investigating. The phrase “election irregularities” used throughout the nearly 50-page law is vague, undefined, and would seem to give the new police force and investigators a lot of leeway in terms of what they investigate, Kanter Cohen said. Plus, the legislation doesn’t include a mechanism for how the state plans to track potentially frivolous and politically motivated complaints.

“Any time there’s an undefined problem, you worry about how they’re going to use their resources,” Griffith said. “There’s an obvious concern of harassment or intimidation by law enforcement, so some voters may be deterred.”

The election police force also harks back to a time when the United States openly relied on police to keep Black people and other marginalized groups from participating at the polls.

“Once you tell these officers that this is their job, they’re going to look for work, and for those irregularities. It’s scary given the Southern history of using law enforcement to kill, threaten, and prevent people from voting,” said Cecile Scoon, a civil rights lawyer and the president of League of Women Voters of Florida, one of the advocacy groups challenging both SB 90 and SB 524 in court. “And especially for older voters, this is a very unwelcome full-circle return to Jim Crow.”

Though much attention has been paid to Florida’s vision for an election police force, it is not the first state to create an election law enforcement body. Texas’ attorney general established an election integrity unit in 2021 and spent $2.2 million to close just three cases. A new Georgia election overhaul law also empowers the state’s bureau of investigations to look into election violations.

Next, the law increases penalties for actions such as so-called “ballot harvesting” — a person or an organization collecting and submitting multiple ballots — from a first-degree misdemeanor to a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, a $5,000 fine, and up to five years of probation. Relatedly, the legislation raises the cap on fines of third-party registration groups — community organizations that help people register to vote — from $1,000 to $50,000. A group could face this penalty if they alter someone’s voter registration application without that person’s knowledge or consent.

This could present problems for formerly incarcerated people who just regained their right to vote, young people, voters of color, and people who need language assistance, since the data show that these groups disproportionately rely on voter registration drives. Laws prohibiting acquaintances from returning ballots on behalf of others could make it effectively illegal for voters with disabilities to cast a vote.

“With regards to churches and small organizations, they’re gonna get cold feet,” Scoon said. “I’ve heard them say that with the raised penalties and a police force, they’re afraid they’re just going to be accused. That means there will be legal bills and public humiliation.”

The law renames drop boxes to “secure ballot intake stations” and affirms the steps taken by SB 90 to limit the number of drop boxes and the times that they are available. It also requires supervisors of elections to conduct annual voter-list maintenance, opening the door to what experts say could be wrongful voter purges. Under the law, supervisors must use data to try to identify people who have moved or are ineligible to vote for reasons such as death. But the data that supervisors have used to make these determinations have historically been inaccurate. For example, officials often run into issues trying to confirm people’s citizenship, sometimes purging voters who are naturalized citizens, experts told Vox. Under the law, Florida’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles must, on a monthly basis, submit the names of non-citizens legally in the country to whom it issued driver’s licenses or ID cards.

Other sections of the new law include a ban on private funding for election administration, including covering the cost of any litigation, a ban on ranked-choice voting, and an instruction to the Department of State to devise a plan by early 2023 that makes voter ID requirements for mail-in ballots stricter.

What the future of voting could look like

How Florida’s new law affects voters in the state will first depend on what happens with SB 90. Since the March 31 court ruling saying parts of that 2021 law were unconstitutional and unfairly targeted Black voters, Florida officials have indicated that they intend to appeal the district court’s decision to the conservative 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals, and the ruling is likely to be overturned there or by the Supreme Court. The law creating the special police force also will likely largely stand, Griffith said, since it is not as wide-reaching.

DeSantis’s end goal, experts told Vox, is to please the national Republican Party, including former President Donald Trump, and to bolster his resume in preparation for a 2024 presidential run.

“The people who supported this bill have really demonstrated that what they’re interested in is, simply, making it harder to vote,” Scoon said. “Especially since they’ve brought nothing forward to suggest that election problems are happening at any scale at all in the state.”

Voting rights and election integrity activists and experts are afraid it will only get worse before it gets better.

“It’s important to remember that these nuts and bolts matter to whether people can access the ballot,” Kanter Cohen said. “That’s why we’re out here fighting these nitty-gritty issues, because they do have an effect on access and whether people can have their voices heard.”

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