Gov. DeSantis responds to criticism calling secretary of state pick ‘most frightening appointment to date’

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday responded to criticism from Democrats of his selection of state Rep. Cord Byrd to replace Secretary of State Laurel Lee.

Lee, a former circuit judge who helped steer Florida through the 2020 elections, officially resigned Monday after a little more than three years in her post.

Following the announcement that Byrd was put in charge of the state’s election systems, Democrats were quick to point out that Byrd’s wife Esther, who was appointed to the state board of education by DeSantis in March, made comments supportive of political conspiracy group QAnon and stirred controversy when she tweeted about the siege of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Byrd, a self-described “Florida gun lawyer” from Neptune Beach, has served in the Florida House as a Republican since 2016.

RELATED: Florida Rep. Cord Byrd addresses political tweet posted by wife

State Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orange County, issued a statement:

“Rep. Byrd must be thoroughly vetted and confirmed by the full Senate body before he is able to preside over the upcoming midterm elections. He is taking over at a critical juncture and will be the first to oversee a new election security force which has unprecedented authority to hunt election and voting violations.”

Democrat state Rep. Carlos G. Smith criticized the pick on social media.

“This may be DeSantis’ most frightening appointment to date. Florida now has a QAnon conspiracy theorist and promoter of the big lie overseeing our state elections and DeSantis’ elections police,” Smith tweeted. “We need a Secretary of State who’s top priority is free and fair elections, not a hyper-partisan GOP loyalist who takes orders from Ron DeSantis. Our right to vote is sacred and I worry about what this could mean for our democracy.”

DeSantis was asked about Smith’s comments during a Monday news conference in Central Florida.

“Cord Byrd is very, very strong,” DeSantis said. “We are not going to have to worry in Florida about Zuckerbucks infiltrating our elections with Cord as Secretary of State. We’re not going to have to worry about ballot harvesting with Cord as Secretary of State, we’re going to make sure that the elections are run efficiently and transparently. But we are not going to allow these external influences to come in and to corrupt the operations. And we’re certainly not going to allow political operatives to harvest all these votes, and then dump them somewhere. And so I think that we have a great framework in place. I think Cord has been very, very strong in terms of wanting election integrity, and so we’re going to be off to the races I think very, very quickly so he’s gonna do a really really good job and I’m excited for him to get to work.”

The reference to “Zuckerbucks” has to do with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and a recently passed Florida law to prohibit third-party contributions to local elections offices that are short of funds. According to reporting from the Associated Press, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, collectively donated at least $400 million to two nonprofit organizations to help various government election offices across the country. AP found the funds were not contributions to Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign and did not violate campaign finance laws.

State Rep. Angie Nixon, a Duval County Democrat, also criticized the Byrd appointment, Florida Politics reported.

“Florida’s top elections official should be a consensus builder whose sole focus is running free and fair elections for every citizen of our state. Cord Byrd is not that person. He is unqualified in both his credentials and his temperament, has proved time and again he will put partisanship ahead of good policy, and is unfit to lead the elections department of a diverse state of more than 20 million people,” Nixon said.

Cord Byrd has not publicly responded to the accusations.

But Cord Byrd got public support from the Florida GOP.

“Secretary Byrd will ensure election integrity, fight big tech censorship, and stop the de-platforming of political candidates! We look forward to his continued leadership,” the GOP tweeted.

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.

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.

The changes come as Florida prepares for the Aug. 23 primary elections and the Nov. 8 general election.

About the Authors:

Digital reporter who has lived in Jacksonville for more than 25 years and focuses on important local issues like education and the environment.

Kent Justice co-anchors News4Jax's 5 p.m., 10 and 11 p.m. newscasts weeknights and reports on government and politics. He also hosts "This Week in Jacksonville," Channel 4's hot topics and politics public affairs show each Sunday morning at 9 a.m.