Florida Gov. DeSantis signs bill creating election police unit

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Monday to create a police force dedicated to pursuing voter fraud and other election crimes.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Monday to create a police force dedicated to pursuing voter fraud and other election crimes, embracing a top priority of Republicans after former President Donald Trump’s false claims that his reelection was stolen.

The new law comes after the Republican governor made voting legislation a focus this year, pushing the Republican-controlled statehouse to create the policing unit as states reevaluate their own election systems in the wake of Trump's unfounded allegations.

DeSantis, who is running for reelection and is widely considered to be a potential 2024 presidential candidate, has both praised the last election as smooth and suggested more rules were needed to deter fraud, underscoring Trump's lingering influence on Republican policymaking. Critics have deemed the law politically motivated and unnecessary, arguing that local prosecutors can handle election crimes.

At a bill signing ceremony Monday at a sports bar in Spring Hill, Florida, DeSantis justified the need for the new law enforcement unit and suggested that existing law enforcement may not be equipped or willing to thoroughly investigate fraud cases.

“Some of them may not care as much about the election stuff. I think it's been mixed at how those reactions are going to be. So we just want to make sure whatever laws are on the books, that those laws are enforced," he said.

Voter fraud is rare, typically occurs in isolated instances and is generally detected. An Associated Press investigation of the 2020 presidential election found fewer than 475 potential cases of voter fraud out of 25.5 million ballots cast in the six states where Trump and his allies disputed his loss to President Joe Biden.

Republicans nationwide have stressed the need to restore public confidence in elections and have passed several voting laws in the past two years aimed at placing new rules around mail and early voting methods that were popular in 2020.

The law creates an Office of Election Crimes and Security under the Florida Department of State to review fraud allegations and conduct preliminary investigations. DeSantis is required to appoint a group of special officers from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who would be tasked with pursuing the election law violations.

Existing state law allowed the governor to appoint officers to investigate violations of election law but did not require him to do so.

The law also increases penalties for the collection of completed ballots by a third party, often referred to as ballot harvesting, to a felony. It raises fines for certain election law violations and requires that election supervisors perform voter list maintenance on a more frequent basis.

Democrats, the minority party in the state Legislature, have criticized the bill as a way for DeSantis to appeal to Republican voters who believe the 2020 election results were fraudulent, while the governor flirts with a presidential run of his own.

“DeSantis’ so-called election reform legislation is a continued attack by the Republican Party to generate public distrust in the integrity of our elections. The bill is unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer funds," said Rep. Tracie Davis, a Democrat.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is a vocal opponent of DeSantis, and running for governor. The Democrat calls it a voter suppression bill, and said last month, “This bill creates unnecessary and deliberate barriers to voting. It perpetuates the lie that our elections are not secure.”

Before the bill passed - the NAACP objected with a letter – specifically referencing the new law enforcement component.

“Especially in light of Florida’s extensive history of law enforcement serving directly or indirectly as a tool of voter intimidation and the absence of any evidence of widespread wrongdoing by voters in Florida’s elections, these proposals should be rejected.”

In late March, a federal judge struck down portions of a sweeping election law passed last year in a blistering ruling that alleged the state's Republican-dominated government was suppressing Black voters, and ordered that attempts to write similar new laws in the next decade must have court approval.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker overturned a provision of last year's law limiting when people could use a drop box to submit their ballot, along with a section prohibiting anyone from engaging with people waiting to vote. He also blocked a section that placed new rules on groups that register voters, including one requiring that people working to register voters submit their names and permanent addresses to the state.

The DeSantis administration is working to reverse Walker’s ruling.

There’s one additional element to the new law. The governor spoke at length about “Zuckerbucks.” What does that phrase mean?

News4JAX looked to Politifact, from the Poynter Institute. They summarized it this way:

  • The day-to-day operations of elections are largely funded through city and county dollars. Costs include running voting sites and mailing out and processing absentee ballots.
  • When the pandemic hit in 2020, election offices couldn’t afford new expenses to safely hold elections. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg donated grant money.
  • A Republican backlash has led to state bans on private funding for future elections. Local elections offices risk not having enough money for the 2022 cycle.

“In more recent months, it was not necessarily being talked about hugely when we did it in Florida, but we knew it was important so we got ahead of it. Now people are talking a little bit more about it. And so, Zuckerberg himself has actually come to come up and said, you know, in 2022, I’m not doing Zuckerbucks this year, you know, I’m not doing it. But you know, here’s the thing, the fact that we banned Zuckerbucks, we don’t have to worry about what he wants to do. He can’t do it in Florida no matter what,“ DeSantis said.

The Center for Tech and Civic Life offered grants to elections offices. Politifact says the center is funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Institute and delivered $350 million in grants for elections in 2020 among 2,500 jurisdictions. The center director says every single jurisdiction that applied received a grant.

In the law DeSantis signed today, it broadens the prohibition of elections supervisors from receiving the so-called “Zuckerbucks.”

About the Authors:

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.