With Lee stepping down as Florida elections chief, DeSantis names Byrd as secretary of state

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Friday that state Rep. Cord Byrd will replace Secretary of State Laurel Lee, a former circuit judge who helped steer Florida through the 2020 elections and is now stepping down after a little more than three years in her post.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Friday that state Rep. Cord Byrd will replace Secretary of State Laurel Lee, a former circuit judge who helped steer Florida through the 2020 elections and is now stepping down after a little more than three years in her post.

Byrd, of Neptune Beach, is an attorney and has served in the Florida House since 2016.

“Cord Byrd has been an ally of freedom and democracy in the Florida Legislature, and I am confident he will carry that mission forward as Secretary of State. I look forward to his successes ensuring Florida’s elections remain safe, secure and well-administered,” DeSantis’ said in his announcement

The governor’s announcement included a statement from Byrd.

“As Secretary of State, I will make sure Florida continues to have secure elections and that we protect the freedom of our citizens in the face of big-tech censorship and ever-growing cybersecurity threats,” Byrd said.

Election officials told News4JAX that Byrd will have to resign as the state representative representing the 11th district to fill the position of the state’s election chief. Already though, there would be an election for his seat starting with the primary in August and then the general election in November.

Jerry Holland used to be the supervisor of elections in Duval County and will be running for that office again next year. He said he’s seen similar transitions in the secretary of state’s office when he ran local elections. He talked about Byrd taking on the state role.

“As a constitutional lawyer, that is one that will be very versed on the election law, so I think you’ll be one that would be a good communicator,” Holland said.

Byrd has experience dealing with election issues on a state level. He was on the Public Integrity and Elections committee for his entire time in the House, including two years as the committee’s vice chair.

Lee’s resignation is effective Monday and came as Florida prepares for the Aug. 23 primary elections and the Nov. 8 general election.

“Together, we protected and grew Florida’s competitive business climate, preserved Florida’s incredible historical resources, supported Florida’s arts and culture community, and strengthened Florida’s election systems,” Lee wrote Wednesday in a letter to DeSantis.

Lee has received much of her attention for being Florida’s chief elections officer, a high-profile role in a state with a history of election controversies. But as head of the Department of State, she also oversees such things as the Division of Corporations, the Division of Historical Resources and the Division of Library and Information Services.

The Florida Politics website reported Thursday that Lee might run in newly redrawn Congressional District 15, a Republican-leaning district in the Tampa Bay region.

In her letter to DeSantis, Lee wrote, “I will continue to seek what’s best for the citizens of Florida and will always be proud of what we accomplished together. Thank you for the opportunity to be part of your team, and I look forward to what the future holds.”

In a statement, DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said Lee “helped ensure Florida had an efficient election in 2020, with accurate results. Further, during her tenure, the Department of State formed strong partnerships with federal agencies to make sure Florida received all possible federal resources that are available to prevent and respond to cyber threats on elections.”

DeSantis appointed Lee in January 2019 after his initial appointee, Mike Ertel, resigned following the release of photos showing him wearing blackface more than a decade earlier. Lee, who is married to former state Senate President Tom Lee, previously served as a Hillsborough County circuit judge.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, quickly expressed concerns Thursday about who would replace Lee.

“We should all be incredibly concerned on who DeSantis could appoint to this important elections position,” Eskamani tweeted. “The secretary of state also leads FL’s Arts & Culture programs, among other things.”

Many states had controversial 2020 elections, as former President Donald Trump and his supporters filed lawsuits and pushed for recounts after Trump lost. But Florida had relatively few problems, with DeSantis saying it had vanquished the “ghost” of the 2000 presidential recount and other well-documented election problems. He later said Florida held the “smoothest and most successful election of any state” in 2020 but that it couldn’t “rest on our laurels.”

Since then, Republican lawmakers and DeSantis have enacted a series of measures that Democrats, civil rights and voting rights groups argue make it harder for Black and Hispanic Floridians to register and vote. A bill passed this year drew heavy scrutiny, at least in part because it created an office in the Department of State to investigate alleged voting irregularities.

The state also is embroiled in legal battles about a congressional redistricting plan that DeSantis pushed through the Legislature last month. As the chief elections officer, Lee is a defendant in those lawsuits, which include allegations that the plan unconstitutionally reduces the number of districts likely to elect Black representatives.

News4JAX checked with people at the Duval County Supervisor of Elections Office, and they believe Lee’s resignation will not have a huge impact even though new election measures will be coming into play.

News4JAX also reached out to Lee for comment beyond her resignation letter and has not heard back from her office.

About the Authors:

Jim is a Capitol reporter for the News Service of Florida, providing coverage on issues ranging from transportation and the environment to Legislative and Cabinet politics.

Jim Piggott is the reporter to count on when it comes to city government and how it will affect the community.