IMAGE COURTESY NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

In the latest battle over Florida’s elections system, lawmakers gave final approval Wednesday to a bill that would make a series of changes, including creating a state office to investigate voting irregularities.

The Republican-controlled House voted 76-41 along straight party lines to pass the bill, which was approved last week by the Senate. It is ready to go to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has called for such changes.

Fueled by former President Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election, Republicans across the country have sought to revamp election laws to address what they contend is fraud. Florida lawmakers also passed a measure last year that included revising laws about mail-in voting — drawing constitutional challenges that are pending in federal court.

The debate Wednesday echoed arguments that have raged for more than a year, with Republicans saying elections need to be as secure as possible and Democrats contending that the changes are aimed at making it harder to vote.

“Voter fraud is real,” said Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a Spring Hill Republican who is a former chairman of the state GOP. “Voter suppression is not.”

But Democrats said there is not evidence of widespread fraud in the state and that the bill would suppress voting.

“This bill is the antithesis of freedom,” Rep. Michele Rayner, D-St. Petersburg, said. “This bill is the antithesis of democracy.”

In part, the bill would create an Office of Election Crimes and Security in the Department of State. Also, it would require the governor, working with the commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, to appoint special FDLE officers to investigate allegations of election violations, with at least one officer in each region of the state.

The bill also would ratchet up financial and criminal penalties for violating elections laws, such as what has become known as “ballot harvesting,” which can include collecting and delivering vote-by-mail ballots for multiple people. The penalty for ballot harvesting would increase from a first-degree misdemeanor to a third-degree felony.

Another part of the bill would require county supervisors of elections to annually scour voter rolls for potentially ineligible voters in a process known as “list maintenance.” Under current law, supervisors are required to do list maintenance every other year.

Also, the bill would require the secretary of state to submit by Jan. 1 a plan to “prescribe the use of a Florida driver license number, Florida identification card number, Social Security number, or any part thereof to confirm the identity of each elector returning a vote-by-mail ballot.” That part of the bill was scaled back after an early version would have required people to use an additional envelope for mail-in ballots and include the last four digits of their driver’s license numbers, Social Security numbers or state identification numbers — a proposal that critics said would be confusing to voters.

The debate Wednesday repeatedly touched on Florida’s successful 2020 elections. Democrats said the success demonstrated the proposed changes aren’t needed, while Republicans said the state continued to need to make improvements in 2021 and this year to prevent future fraud.

“This year’s bill ups that insurance policy,” Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, R-Fort Myers, said. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

But Rep. Kamia Brown, D-Ocoee, likened the bill to past efforts to use law enforcement to intimidate Black voters.

“People who look like me have seen this time and time again,” Brown, who is Black, said.

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