What You Need to Know About Ron DeSantis’ New Election Police Unit in Florida

Volunteer poll workers accept mail-in ballots outside the Leon County Supervisor of Elections office on November 3, 2020 in Tallahassee, Florida. Photo Courtesy: Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

Voting and the right to vote have been issues at the core of American life for the entirety of the country’s existence. In recent years — most specifically after Donald Trump’s loss to Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election — allegations of voter fraud have been a common theme in political discussions. That has held true even after extensive fact-checking revealed Trump’s claims to be false and little-to-no evidence of fraud having taken place. 

Near the end of April 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law that will create “the Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Department of State to aid the Secretary of State in completion of his or her existing duties related to investigation of election law violations or election irregularities.” This bill has gotten a fair amount of attention in subsequent weeks, so let’s take a closer look at what, exactly, is called for in the bill, why some people are worried about what it means, and whether voter fraud is even an issue in the U.S. in the first place.

What Is in the Election Administration Bill?

The part of the bill getting the most attention has been the creation of a so-called “election police force.” Basically, beyond creating the “Office of Election Crimes and Security,” the law requires the sitting governor to “appoint special officers to investigate alleged violations of election laws.” The Department of State will also have to report, annually, on “each received allegation of an election law violation or election irregularity.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February of 2022 in Orlando, Florida. Photo Courtesy: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The law will increase the penalties for election law violations as well. This includes greater fines against third-party voter registration organizations that don’t deliver completed voter registration applications in a timely manner. It also increases the penalty for “ballot harvesting,” or the collection of completed ballots by a third-party (a practice for which the laws vary widely state-by-state). Finally, the bill includes provisions requiring more frequent maintenance and scrutiny of voter registration information. According to Representative Daniel Perez (R-FL), the effort will be budgeted at around $3.7 million. 

Why Are Some Folks Worried About This Bill?

Given that Governor DeSantis himself praised Florida’s handling of the 2020 presidential election, many are questioning whether the new Office of Election Crimes and Security is necessary. Representative Yvonne Hayes Hinson, a Democrat from Gainesville, said that beyond creating an office to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, the law’s implementation “will put up additional barriers to voting and [that it] targets communities of color. This bullying tactic will intimidate and immobilize workers, families, and everyday people.”

This comes on the heels of a decision at the end of March by a judge in Florida who struck down a 2021 election law supported by DeSantis. That law — which would have placed limits on mail-in voting drop boxes and placed new requirements on voter registration groups — was deemed unconstitutional. The judge, Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, wrote in his decision that the law was part of a pattern in Florida of “law after law disproportionately burdening Black voters.” 

Florida is currently appealing that decision, but it stands as a summation of what many people are worried about regarding this new law — namely, that the additional barriers to, and scrutiny of, the voting process are specifically designed to disenfranchise communities of color. 

Is Voter Fraud Even a Problem in the U.S.?

Ultimately, much of the resistance to laws like the one DeSantis recently signed in Florida comes down to the fact that they put up additional barriers to making it easier to vote where no such barriers are necessary. The fact of the matter is that there is a long history in the U.S. of politicians using the concept of voter fraud to disenfranchise folks who are likely to vote against them.

This practice goes back to at least 1807. Prior to then, women and Black people in New Jersey who owned property could vote if they met certain residency requirements. Leading up to 1807, both parties (at the time, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans) at different moments alleged that women were being taken advantage of at the polls in various ways. At one point, it was even suggested that men were voting and then changing into women’s clothing to vote again. Even at the time, many knew these arguments were not legitimate, but in 1807 a law was nevertheless passed that took away the right to vote from women and Black people in New Jersey

Postcard image of women and girls wearing suffrage sashes and riding on a “Votes for Women” float in Vineland, New Jersey. Postmarked April 14, 1914. Photo Courtesy: Library of Congress/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

But that’s not the only instance to pop up in U.S. history. In 1836 the city of Philadelphia passed a voter registration law requiring assessors to compile voter lists. In his book The Right to Vote, Alexander Keyssar writes that “Although the proclaimed goal of the law was to reduce fraud… opponents insisted that its real intent was to reduce the participation of the poor, who were frequently not home when assessors came by.” In 1959 a voter purge in Washington Parish, Louisiana claimed to remove illegally registered voters, but in fact removed “85% of African American voters from the registration rolls.”

In this light, the allegations of voter fraud made after Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election can be seen as part of a long history of attempts to use the idea of voter fraud in the service of political opportunism. That history makes it worth paying attention to the passage of bills like this most recent election administration one in Florida. The right to vote — fought for by so many over the country’s history — is at the core of the American system of government, and deserves to be protected.