A measure to create a first-of-its-kind office in Florida to investigate voting irregularities, along with making other changes in the state’s elections system, was signed into law Monday by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The measure (SB 524) expands on a 2021 state law that passed as Republicans across the country argued steps needed to be taken to combat fraud after former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election. Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker last month ruled that parts of the 2021 law were unconstitutional, though the state has appealed.
Florida officials have highlighted that the state had relatively few problems in the 2020 elections. But DeSantis said Monday the additional changes should give Floridians “more confidence” about the voting process.
“At the end of the day, we want to be in a situation where everyone knows the rules,” DeSantis said while at a bill-signing ceremony at Rookies Sports Bar & Grill in Spring Hill.
Perhaps the highest-profile part of the new law will create an Office of Election Crimes and Security in the Department of State.
“I think this office will be very, very much appreciated,” DeSantis said. “And it will allow us to have people who really specialize in election security and election integrity.”
But critics argued changes in the bill are intended to suppress voting by minorities and Democrats and potentially lay the groundwork for Republican challenges to future election results.
“Instead of working to increase access to the polls, Gov. DeSantis continues to prioritize disinformation and feed into lies that the 2020 elections were not accurate, which is super-ironic and disingenuous because in November 2020 the governor was bragging about how well our elections went,” Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said in a prepared statement.
Rep. Susan Valdes, D-Tampa, pointed to concerns about a “chilling effect” from such things as the new office conducting elections investigations.
“No Floridian should fear reprisal from an unaccountable agency with a nebulous mission simply because they wanted to register their fellow citizens to vote or help a neighbor turn in their mail ballot,” Valdes said in a statement. “We should be doing everything in our power to make it easier for our fellow Floridians to vote, yet this bill is another example in a years-long campaign to undermine that right.”
The 2021 law included revisions that would make it harder to vote by mail. Also, it targeted “ballot harvesting,” which can include collecting and delivering vote-by-mail ballots for multiple people.
The new law, in addition to creating the office in the Department of State, calls for the appointment of Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers to investigate allegations of election violations, with at least one officer in each region of the state.
The bill also will ratchet up financial and criminal penalties for violating elections laws, including for ballot harvesting. The penalty for ballot harvesting will increase from a first-degree misdemeanor to a third-degree felony.
Another part of the bill will require county supervisors of elections to annually scour voter rolls for potentially ineligible voters in a process known as “list maintenance.” Prior to the new law, supervisors were required to do list maintenance every other year.
“Some supervisors have done a really good job at cleaning the voting rolls, but not all of them have done it,” DeSantis said. “This bill now requires them to clean their voting rolls every year.”
Also, the bill will 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 law was approved in votes of 76-41 in the House and 24-14 in the Senate, along almost straight party lines.