By Steve Contorno and Fredreka Schouten, CNN
Florida could become the first state in the country with a dedicated police force to investigate election fraud under a proposal that has become a top priority of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The proposal has concerned voting rights advocates, local election officials and Democrats, who fear the scope of this police force’s new mandate could lead to voter intimidation. If approved, the new office would have a 52-member team, including 20 sworn police officers, to “investigate, detect, apprehend, and arrest anyone for an alleged violation” of election laws.
“They don’t have a lot of safeguards to keep this from being politicized and weaponized,” said Brad Ashwell, the Florida state director of the voting rights group All Voting is Local.
DeSantis is asking lawmakers to set aside $5.7 million to create the Office of Election Crimes and Security and give the executive branch unique and unprecedented power to look into voting irregularities, despite little evidence of widespread voter fraud in his state.
The Repubican said last week that the new office would “ensure that elections are conducted in accordance with the rule of law” and “provide Floridians with the confidence that their vote will matter.”
Establishing an office that ultimately answers to the governor with powers to investigate election crimes is unprecedented at the state level, voting rights experts say.
DeSantis’ proposal represents “an escalation in the broader attempt to sow doubt in the integrity of our elections,” said Wendy Weiser, vice president of democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school. It’s unusual, she added, because “in the American system, we separate law enforcement functions from political functions.”
The governor first announced the proposal in November as supporters of Donald Trump pushed for Republicans to investigate the former President’s unfounded falsehoods about election fraud. Even in Florida, where Trump won by a historically wide margin, conservatives spent the fall knocking on doors in communities all over the state, hoping to find evidence of fraud that could convince leaders to conduct a review of the 2020 vote totals.
Trump ally Roger Stone, a Florida resident, threatened in October to run against DeSantis in 2022 if the governor didn’t support an audit of the state’s election.
DeSantis, widely considered a future GOP contender for president, has dismissed those demands as unnecessary in Florida, which he has said is a voting model for the country. Nevertheless, he has pushed for new voting measures that he said will prevent election fraud.
Florida law enforcement agencies, local election officials and state prosecutors already have the power to enforce election laws in Florida. The unit DeSantis has proposed would report to the Department of State, an agency overseen by the governor and administered by Secretary of State Laurel Lee, a DeSantis appointee.
DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said the new office would like to hire people “who have experience and familiarity with election law,” such as former employees of the Department of Homeland Security, the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the Department of Justice.
In December, Lee addressed a gathering of Florida election supervisors and offered more details about how the office would work, said Joe Scott, the elections supervisor in Broward County. He said he grew alarmed after listening to Lee.
“It sounds like they are going to focus on grassroots organizations — the type of organizations that go out and do voter registration drives,” he said. And he worries that the potential for criminal prosecution will “intimidate people into not bothering” with electoral work.
The League of Women Voters of Florida typically registers thousands of voters each year in the state, said Cecile Scoon, a Panama City civil rights lawyer who serves as its president. If DeSantis succeeds in establishing a new elections security office, “it’s going to chill the behavior” of third-party groups such as hers “because we don’t want to be accused” unfairly of illegal activity, she said.
“We’ve had almost zero fraud, almost zero problems, so you are asking yourself: ‘What are they going to be looking for?’ ” Scoon said. “When you create an office to stamp out something, they are going to look for it — even if there is nothing there.”
Scott, a Democrat, said he’s skeptical of an elections police force that’s controlled by a DeSantis appointee.
“This is Gov. DeSantis’ political police squad. That’s what this is,” he said. “You shouldn’t have partisan election officials directing an agency like this.”
Republican lawmakers have reacted cautiously to the governor’s proposal. The top Republicans on the House and Senate election committees did not respond to phone calls from CNN. Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls previously said he would evaluate the idea but was uncommitted.
State Rep. Evan Jenne, the House minority leader, called DeSantis’ idea: “A solution looking for a problem.”
“If this had come on the heels of a massive scandal, I wouldn’t be so against the idea,” Jenne said.
The unit would have latitude to probe allegations of voter fraud in the state as well as take over other law enforcement agencies’ investigations, according to the proposed legislation. DeSantis would also embolden this new force to watch over election officers and “conduct proactive information gathering and investigations to identify and prevent potential election law violations or election irregularities.”
Wesley Wilcox, a Republican who runs elections in Marion County, Florida, said he was taken aback by what he called the “tough” wording.
“It kind of makes supervisors, in my mind, almost look like bad guys in this process,” he said.
The Florida Supervisors of Elections, the group that represents all 67 county election officials in the state, is waiting to evaluate a concrete legislative proposal before taking a formal position, said Wilcox, the organization’s president.
In the past, top Republicans have turned to state law enforcement to investigate their vague allegations of election irregularities.
With his race headed for a recount in 2018, then-Gov. Rick Scott accused “unethical liberals” of trying to steal a US Senate seat from him and he requested that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement conduct a criminal probe into a South Florida elections office. The investigation was ultimately dropped.
Just before the 2020 election, DeSantis questioned the legality of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s offer to raise funds to pay the court debts of felons so they could vote. Calls for an investigation ultimately landed in the lap of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which again found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Pushaw seemed to confirm that the later episode could have fallen under the jurisdiction of DeSantis’ new elections force, had it existed.
“The proposed Office of Election Crimes and Security is intended to investigate possible violations of election law and deter potential violations,” she said, adding: “Florida law explicitly prohibits ‘vote-buying’ and ‘vote-selling,’ ” which is what Republicans accused Bloomberg of violating.
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