Florida Republicans propose election police force

Jane C. Timm
Election workers set up voting booths at an early voting site established by the City of Orlando and the Orlando Magic at the Amway Center, the home arena of the Magic, on October 15, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. Early voting begins in Florida on October 19, 2020.
Paul Hennessy | NurPhoto | Getty Images

Florida Republicans this week proposed a separate police unit dedicated to hunting voter fraud, part of new legislation that would further overhaul elections in the state.

The bill, Senate Bill 524, would create the Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Florida Department of State to vet claims of voter fraud or election irregularities before referring those claims to other law enforcement agencies for potential prosecution.

Incidents of voter fraud are incredibly rare in the U.S., and past and present investigations by law enforcement agencies around the country have struggled to find more than a handful of cases amid the millions of ballots cast in America.

In 2020, Texas' attorney general's office beefed up voter fraud investigations — logging 22,000 staff hours, twice as many hours as staff logged in 2018. The result was just 16 prosecutions, according to the Houston Chronicle, which is half as many prosecutions as it resolved in 2018. There were nearly 17 million registered voters in Texas in 2020.

Still, Florida is one of three GOP-led states considered presidential battlegrounds where legislators are mulling a new voter fraud police force as former President Donald Trump continues to promote his lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him. (Trump won Florida.)

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Republican state Sen. Travis Hutson, the Florida bill's sponsor, said during a committee hearing Tuesday that the department would be staffed by 15 full-time investigators and 10 sworn law enforcement agents appointed by the governor from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, a statewide law enforcement agency that includes the Capitol Police and other statewide operations. The agency reports to the governor and the Florida Cabinet, which includes the attorney general and other state officials.

The office would operate Florida's voter fraud hotline and investigate reports made there, but the unit could also conduct independent investigations based on other information, Hutson said during hearings when pressed on whether the agency would have limits to its work.

Florida Democrats, voting rights advocates and some election officials have criticized the bill and its proposals, including the new unit.

"I think we should be afraid of a political election police goon squad who can target specific communities, and they don't need any kind of cause to knock on doors or sit at a drop box and scare people," said Democratic state Sen. Tina Scott Polsky, whose district includes part of Palm Beach. "That's what it looks like to the outside world."

The Senate's bill is a scaled-back version of the $5.7 million operation Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed late last year in his budget, which would have hired 52 staffers, including 20 sworn law enforcement officers and 25 nonsworn investigators to hunt for voter fraud. It's unclear how much the Senate's version would cost taxpayers.

Republican legislators in Arizona and Georgia, states that President Joe Biden flipped blue in his path to defeating Trump in the 2020 presidential race, have also advocated for election crime units.

Earlier this year in Arizona, state Sen. Wendy Rogers proposed a $5 million Bureau of Elections within the office of the governor, which would give investigators the ability to question any individual under oath, issue subpoenas, conduct hearings and issue public reports on their findings. Elections are currently overseen by the secretary of state, a position held by Democrat Katie Hobbs, who is now running for governor.

Biden narrowly won Arizona, prompting allegations of widespread voter fraud from Trump and his allies, including many state Senate Republicans. Official checks, ample litigation and an unorthodox review of millions of ballots commissioned by state Senate Republicans failed to turn up proof of these allegations.

Rogers did not respond to a request for an interview.

Former Sen. David Perdue, a Republican running for governor in Georgia against GOP incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, proposed a police force to investigate election fraud in January. He said such a unit would operate under the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, a statewide law enforcement agency independent of the governor's office.

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican, has also said he'd support moving election crime investigations from the secretary of state's office to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. That bill has not yet been filed, said Kaleb McMichen, Ralston's director of communications. Biden won Georgia in 2020.

These police units are being floated alongside other measures that would further tighten election laws in those states, continuing a trend in mostly Republican-led states after Trump's loss to Biden. In 2021, 19 states enacted new voting restrictions.

In Florida, Senate Bill 524 would also add a new voter ID requirement for mail ballots and require officials to conduct more voter roll list maintenance.

If created, it's possible that Florida's election fraud squad unit could have more personnel than some forces have investigating homicides, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, which patrols and investigates crime for approximately 1 million residents near Tampa, had 18 officers investigating 49 homicides in 2020, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Florida law enforcement officials already charged with hunting fraud have found just a handful of people who voted twice in 2020.

When asked why his bill was necessary, Hutson said: "What's wrong with being the most secure elections in the entire nation? Who's afraid of being too secure? I don't think I am."