TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed a bill creating a police force dedicated to prosecuting voter fraud and other election crimes that embraces Republicans’ top priority after former President Donald Trump’s false allegations that his re-election was stolen.
The new law comes after the Republican governor put the referendum legislation in focus this year, pushing the Republican-controlled State House to set up the police unit while states reconsider their own electoral systems in the wake of Trump’s unfounded allegations.
DeSantis, who is running for re-election and is widely considered a potential presidential candidate in 2024, has both praised the recent election as smooth and suggested that more rules were needed to deter fraud, underscoring Trump’s sustained influence on the Republican politics. Critics have considered the law politically motivated and unnecessary, arguing that local prosecutors can deal with electoral crimes.
At a law-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 about the election. I think it’s been mixed with how those reactions are going to be. So we just want to make sure that the laws that are in the books are enforced, “he said.
Election fraud is rare, typically occurs in isolated cases and is generally detected. An Associated Press poll 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 denied his loss to President Joe Biden.
Republicans across the country have stressed the need to restore public confidence in elections and have enacted several voting laws in the last two years with the aim of placing new rules around postal and early voting methods that were popular in 2020.
The law establishes an office for election crimes and security under the Florida State Department to investigate allegations of fraud and conduct preliminary investigations. DeSantis is required to appoint a group of special officers from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who will be tasked with prosecuting violations of election law.
Existing state law allowed the governor to appoint officials to investigate violations of election law, but did not require him to do so.
The law also sharpens the penalties for collecting completed ballots by a third party, often referred to as ballot harvesting, for a crime. It raises fines for certain violations of the Election Act and requires election leaders to perform electoral roll 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 his own presidential election.
“DeSantis ‘so-called electoral reform legislation is a continuing attack by the Republican Party to create public distrust of the integrity of our election. The bill is unnecessary and a waste of taxpayers’ funds,” the rep said. Tracie Davis, a Democrat.
In late March, a federal judge overturned parts of a comprehensive election law passed last year in a blistering ruling that the state’s Republican-dominated government is oppressing black voters, and ordered that attempts to write similar new laws in the next decade must have the approval of the court.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker overturned a provision in last year’s law that limits when people could use a drop box to cast their ballot, along with a section banning anyone from engaging with people waiting to vote. He also blocked a section that placed new rules for groups registering voters, including one that requires people working to register voters to submit their names and permanent addresses to the state.
The DeSantis administration is working to reverse Walker’s decision.