The chamber approved the bill on a party lines vote with nearly all Republicans in support. House lawmakers are considering companion legislation.
DeSantis, a Republican, proposed the need for an election police unit last year, citing unspecified allegations of fraud that have gained traction in parts of the GOP following former President Donald Trump's false claims that his reelection was stolen.
The governor, who is running for reelection and considered a potential 2024 presidential challenger, has both praised Florida's 2020 Election as smooth and said more rules are needed to prevent wrongdoing. Voter fraud is rare and generally detected. There is consensus among election officials and experts that there was no fraud that could have impacted results in the last presidential election.
“What are we really afraid of here?” Sen. Travis Hutson, a Republican sponsoring the bill, asked lawmakers Friday after a short debate. “Are we afraid of our elections being too secure?”
The bill would create an Office of Election Crimes and Security under the Department of State to review fraud allegations and conduct preliminary investigations. The governor would be required to appoint a group of special officers from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who would be dedicated to pursuing the election law violations.
State law currently allows the governor to appoint officers to investigate violations of election law but does not require him to do so.
Democrats argued that the measure is meant to satisfy a wing of the Republican Party that believes the 2020 presidential vote was fraudulent. Critics said the measure is unnecessary since local prosecutors can handle fraud cases.
“We all know that Florida had a great election so why are we doing this? The only thing I can think is that we're motivated by the Big Lie, that the elections nationwide did not take place in a proper manner, but we know that's not true,” said Sen. Lori Berman, a Democrat.
The proposal also would increase the penalty for so-called “ballot harvesting,” the collection of completed ballots by a third party, to a felony. Fines for certain election law violations would be raised and election supervisors would be required to more frequently conduct maintenance of their voter lists, under the measure.
The legislation follows a voting law approved by Florida’s GOP-controlled legislature and signed by DeSantis last year that placed new rules on ballot drop boxes and required a driver’s license number, state ID number or last four digits of a Social Security number to request a mail ballot. Last year's law is the subject of a federal trial after being challenged by voting rights groups.