The Senate could soon vote to establish an election crimes investigations unit, ban ranked-choice voting, change vote-by-mail forms and more.
After more than two hours of discussion, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted nearly along party lines Thursday to send an elections bill (SB 524) that contains several of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “election integrity” priorities to the Senate floor. Despite bipartisan agreement the 2020 election was possibly the smoothest in Florida’s recent history, the bill is Republicans’ second follow-up measure to strengthen Florida’s voting laws.
The legislation, sponsored by St. Augustine Republican Sen. Travis Hutson, proposes many changes to several areas of Florida election laws.
“I don’t want one illegal vote in the state of Florida, and I don’t think we should be afraid of our elections being too secure,” Hutson told the committee.
Gulf Breeze Republican Sen. Doug Broxson suggested the measure is insurance for the future rather than a reaction to the past.
“We’re really looking to the future, to the reality of what seems to be a changing landscape across the country on election procedure,” Broxson told the committee.
But Democrats, like Jacksonville Sen. Audrey Gibson, contested the bill’s purpose.
“All this is stoking fear. It is wanting to cause division, not only in this state, but in this country,” Gibson said.
Hutson’s bill would create the Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Department of State, which receives and investigates complaints about voter fraud.
Per the Department of State’s recommendation, Republican leadership wants to staff the office with 15 employees to investigate election crimes. But North Miami Beach Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo, a former prosecutor, said many employees would suggest there are thousands of voter fraud cases in Florida. The Department of State’s voter fraud hotline received more than 200 calls during the 2020 election cycle, Hutson said.
“Does the Governor and the Secretary of State not think — … maybe in retrospect because of this bill — that the 2020 election was not as smooth and, let’s say, kosher as it should have been?” Pizzo asked.
A previous version of the bill would have required voters to put the last four digits of their Social Security, driver’s license or state-issued ID card on a voter identification form that is signed to send with vote-by-mail ballots. However, Hutson removed that provision with an amendment.
The amendment also adds a fine to organizations if a person collecting voter applications on its behalf changes someone’s party affiliation without consent. The fine is $1,000 per altered application.
That followed reports that party registration of elderly Democrats in Sen. Annette Taddeo’s Miami-Dade district were changed to Republican without their knowledge or permission.
Several members of the public who testified in favor of the bill argued voter fraud is prevalent. At least one argued the Democratic Party is largely responsible for perpetuating fraud, including by door-to-door canvassing.
The bill would increase the penalties on organizations that violate election registration laws from $1,000 to $50,000.
Additionally, it asks supervisors of elections to annually maintain voter roll lists instead of every two years, another of DeSantis’ requests.
Democratic lawmakers have noted the call to strengthen election security came from DeSantis and Republican lawmakers, not election supervisors. Gibson said there is not a conspiracy among supervisors of elections, Democratic or Republican, to cover fraud.
“There is no party that has a monopoly on fraud. That just does not happen. That just does not exist,” she said.
DeSantis has continually railed against ballot drop boxes, which he authorized as part of a 2019 election law package (SB 7066) despite his objection to the provision. This year’s bill is a follow-up to a measure he signed in May (SB 90) to more tightly enforce how elections offices use and monitor them.
The new legislation also would ban local governments from implementing ranked-choice voting to avoid local election runoffs.
Sarasota voters in 2007 approved a charter amendment that called for ranked-choice ballots whenever the state Division of Elections certified a system for use. More than 77.6% of voters endorsed the measure.
The bill also prohibits supervisors of elections from using private donations to operate elections. DeSantis has called those donations “Zuckerbucks,” referring to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
The House version (HB 7061), carried by Miami Republican Rep. Daniel Perez, also is ready for a vote on the House floor.
The committee also approved a separate bill from Hutson (SB 144) that would open the door to free ID cards for people facing financial hardships as well as to people who are 80 years old and have been denied driving privileges because of a failed vision test. The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (FLHSMV) could not ask people facing financial hardship to prove it, but those people would have to present valid Florida voter registration cards.
FLHSMV already waives the $25 application, renewal and replacement fees for homeless people and youth, people living at or below the poverty line, and inmates and juvenile offenders.
The House version (HB 7063), also carried by Perez, awaits a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee.