Florida Creates a New Police Force to Investigate Elections
The reform will add to a wave of Republican laws that are criminalizing the voting process under the pretense of cracking down on fraud.
Kay-Ann Henry, | March 16, 2022
Update: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill creating a new election police force on April 25, 2022.
Jim Crow-era election laws are getting a facelift in Florida.
Senate Bill 524, which Republican lawmakers passed last week, would establish Florida’s Office of Election Crimes and Security, a new state office staffed with law enforcement meant to investigate election crimes. The bill would also give Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign the legislation, unprecedented authority to initiate criminal investigations of election-related matters.
At the same time, SB 524 would make it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison for volunteers to drop off more than two people’s ballots, and dramatically ratchet up penalties for grassroots organizations and other get-out-the-vote groups who make mistakes on forms for voter registration and mail ballot applications, raising the fine from $1,000 to $50,000.
While Florida’s bill mirrors a wave of similar legislation in GOP-controlled states that restrict and complicate voting processes, it goes the furthest in establishing a state agency dedicated to policing the vote. DeSantis initially called for $5.7 million to fund an office employing a staff of 52, though by the time it landed on DeSantis’s desk the budget shrunk to an estimated $3.7 million.
DeSantis pushed for the new law despite saying the state’s voting systems are secure and passed the test of the 2020 presidential election with “flying colors.” But DeSantis, alongside other Florida Republicans, has also invoked vague claims of widespread voter fraud to justify new restrictions on voting.
Advocates for voting rights worry that an election police force will now crack down on voters in the name of investigating baseless claims. They say policing the elections process more heavily will further alienate Black and Latinx voters, who already face disproportionately high barriers to the ballot box because of previous voting restrictions passed by Florida Republicans.
“It makes voting sound like something criminal,” Steven Lance, policy counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), told Bolts. “If you were looking for messaging to intimidate Black and brown voters without accountability, this is the kind of thing you’d want to use.”
Jonathan Alingu, co-director of the labor rights group Central Florida Jobs with Justice, said the law dovetails with “a national campaign, particularly by conservative-leaning politicians, to further disenfranchise Black and brown voters and scare them from the polls.” Alingu, who is Black, called Florida “just another testing ground.”
Many Republican-run states have added criminal statutes to the voting process in recent years, threatening to chill turnout and civic engagement. Last year, civil rights groups already sued Florida for likely criminalizing volunteers who give free food, water, or other relief to voters waiting in long lines; Georgia Republicans passed a similar measure over the same period. Local officials who promote mail voting in Texas may now face criminal charges as well due to a 2021 law that added many provisions to criminal statutes. In addition, high-profile prosecutions of Black voters who commit voting errors have been decried as an effort to scare voters from the polls.
Florida’s new law adds to this recent wave, but it is also the latest chapter in a long history of voter suppression in the state. Like in much of the country, white violence terrorized Black people who tried to vote in the decades following Reconstruction. On November 2, 1920, white mobs near Orlando lynched July Perry, a leader in the local Black community, for helping others who attempted to vote, part of a spasm of election-day violence that is now remembered as the Ocoee Massacre. In addition to constant harassment and intimidation, officials also used poll taxes, literacy tests and all-white primaries to suppress Black voters.
Despite the civil rights and voting rights acts of the 1960s, barriers to voting that disproportionately target Florida’s Black voters through law enforcement stretch into the present day. The state had permanently banned more than one in five Black adults from voting due to felony convictions as of 2018, when voters loosened the rules, and the state even wrongly purged voters who were not convicted. State Republicans adopted a law in 2019 that required people to pay off their court debt before they could get their rights restored.
Many Black Floridians were turned away from the polls during the tight 2000 presidential election and intimidated by police presence near several polling locations.
Police presence also served as an intimidation tactic during the 2020 elections. A 2020 LDF report listed volunteer recollections of armed officers lingering around poll stations in Miami and Washington County. Voters also submitted evidence of threatening text and email messages from Trump supporters.
Florida Republicans have pushed through a plethora of other changes. In 2011, legislation signed by former Governor Rick Scott added barriers to registering voters and slashed early voting days. The same 2021 bill that threatened people with criminal charges also introduced stricter rules for voting by mail and eliminated accessible locations.
In response to the new law proposed this year, Democratic lawmakers in Florida have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate efforts to restrict voting access in the state.
“Harmful proposals to create new partisan bodies to oversee our voting process are exactly the kind of action that demand oversight as we work to ensure that our voting process is unquestionably trustworthy,” Democratic lawmakers wrote in a January letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland about SB 524.
During a recent state Senate hearing, Florida lawmakers confirmed that the new agency would receive and investigate anonymous tips, which voting rights advocates fear could be weaponized. “Someone could leave an anonymous denunciation of a voter or group they don’t see as legitimate and that can lead to investigations and voter intimidation,” Lance told Bolts. “It could potentially have the result of deterring organizations from engaging in important work because they’d be afraid of crushing financial penalties if they made a mistake.”
Brad Ashwell, the Florida state director at All Voting Is Local, said voting rights advocates will keep pushing for ways to expand ballot access and reduce voter confusion in the face of increased efforts to police the vote. “They could be making sure we have more early voting sites, its supervisors of elections have more current voting technology or different services that would make it easier for voters to track their ballots,” Ashwell said. “They could do things to extend the deadline to cure a vote by mail ballot, which would mean less ballots getting rejected.”
Ashwell is particularly concerned about whether small voter outreach groups that organize in communities that are less likely to vote will be able to continue operating. “They’re really focused on communities that are hard to reach and usually those are the voters we need most to get out to the polls,” Ashwell said. “This is going to hurt everybody from churches to Girl Scouts.”