Florida legislators passed a Republican-backed bill Wednesday that would establish an office to pursue reports of election crimes while creating a separate police force for investigations, even though there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
The House passed the legislation, which would make other changes to election laws to prevent or catch voter fraud, in a 76-41 party-line vote after the Senate approved it last week. It now heads to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.
The bill would create an Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Florida State Department and authorize hiring 15 investigators to run a voter fraud hotline and vet claims of election crimes. Ten sworn law enforcement agents would be assigned to investigate fraud as part of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which includes the Capitol Police and other statewide operations.
GOP state Rep. Daniel Perez said Tuesday the legislation would cost about $3.7 million, although he added that law enforcement agents and other investigators could perform functions outside their voter fraud hunting responsibilities.
The legislation aims “to make sure the resources are there so there is no potential fraud slipping through the cracks,” Perez said on the House floor. Other Republicans argued that it would increase trust in the election process.
The measure is a pared-down version of the $5.7 million, 52-person voter fraud police force that DeSantis, a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, proposed in his budget.
Critics argued that the bill is a waste of money.
"This anti-voter freedom act is a solution in search of a problem," Democratic Rep. Kamia Brown said on the House floor.
Incidents of voter fraud are incredibly rare in the U.S. Investigations across the country have struggled to find more than a handful of cases amid the tens of millions of ballots cast.
In 2020, the Texas attorney general’s office beefed up voter fraud investigations — it logged 22,000 staff hours, twice as many as in 2018. The effort resulted in 16 prosecutions, according to the Houston Chronicle, half as many as it resolved in 2018. There were nearly 17 million registered voters in Texas in 2020.
Florida is one of several GOP-led states where legislators have proposed creating voter fraud police forces as former President Donald Trump continues to promote his lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Trump won Florida in both 2016 and 2020.
The Florida bill would require election officials to update voter roll lists with greater frequency and require the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to give election officials a monthly list of people whose IDs indicate they aren't U.S. citizens.
Democrats and advocates warn that the measure could disproportionately affect new citizens.
“If you’re relying on stale information from the DMV, you may be in a situation where the voter was absolutely telling the truth when they weren’t a citizen when they got their license and then they’re absolutely telling the truth when they actually register," said Daniel Griffith, the director of policy at Secure Democracy USA, a nonpartisan group that aims to build confidence in elections and improve voter access.
“We need to see guardrails within that language that require them to only look at data from the DMV that was generated after the registration application," he added.
Asked whether the bill could end up unfairly affecting the large Cuban population in Florida, Perez said on the House floor that he was "not concerned" and that all voters have the same recourse to fix problems with their voter registrations.
Texas twice used citizenship data from state agencies to purge voter rolls, triggering a legal challenge and claims of improper targeting of immigrants, which led to a 2019 settlement and restrictions on what kind of information officials could compile.
The Florida bill would also increase the criminal and financial penalties for breaking election laws, including higher maximum total fines groups could face if they didn't submit voter registrations in a timely fashion or if they fraudulently altered voters’ registrations. The Miami Herald recently reported that some residents’ voter registrations were changed to Republican without their knowledge.