Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has proposed a first-of-its-kind plan to create a special state police agency to oversee and protect the integrity of state elections, sparking controversy about the role of law enforcement in the voting process.
The Office of Election Crimes and Security, which would be part of the Office of the Florida Secretary of State, would consist of a force of officers who would “investigate, detect, apprehend, and arrest anyone for an alleged violation” of election laws.
In his proposal, DeSantis called on the GOP-controlled legislature to devote around $6 million for the creation of the agency and to hire 52 staff members who would be stationed at field offices throughout the state.
The task force would consist of at least 20 sworn law enforcement officers and 25 non-sworn personnel responsible for investigating possible election crimes, which would then be referred to a state prosecutor if necessary.
According to the proposal’s language, the unit would not only be able to look into complaints or allegations from government officials or citizens, but would also have the power to conduct independent investigations. The unit would be responsible for proactively gathering information to identify and prevent election crimes as well.
“To ensure that elections are conducted in accordance with the rule of law, I propose an election integrity unit whose sole focus will be the enforcement of Florida’s election laws,” DeSantis said during his State of the State address before the 60-day annual legislative session. “This will facilitate the faithful enforcement of election laws and will provide Floridians with the confidence that their vote will matter.”
The move comes after concern about voter fraud in the last presidential election.
Voting rights advocates were critical of the proposal, noting that establishing a task force to specifically oversee state elections was unprecedented and could lead to voter intimidation.
“There’s a reason that there’s no office of this size with this kind of unlimited investigative authority in any other state in the country, and it’s because election crimes and voter fraud are just not a problem of that magnitude,” voting rights lawyer Jonathan Diaz told the Washington Post. “My number one concern is that this is going to be used as a tool to harass or intimidate civic-engagement organizations and voters.”
Democrats in Congress also raised concerns about Republican attempts at “voter suppression.”
“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,” a group of legislators wrote to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Critics of the plan argued that it would be fiscally wasteful and redundant, since the governor also asked for more funds to create eight additional positions to manage a “growing caseload of election crimes,” the Post reported.
Following the 2020 presidential election, the Florida governor took significant steps to regulate the state’s voting system, including signing a controversial bill limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, requiring voters to request mail-in ballots and banning groups or individuals from gathering absentee ballots on behalf of others.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls said that legislators would “look into” the new proposal, and added that DeSantis had previously expressed concern that existing law enforcement agencies lacked the tools and expertise to currently find and prosecute election crimes.