Amid fierce opposition from Democrats, a Senate committee Tuesday, Feb. 1, backed an elections bill that includes adding more rules for voting by mail and creating a state office to investigate allegations of voting irregularities.
The bill (SB 524), approved in a party-line vote by the Republican-controlled Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, could turn into one of the most-controversial issues of the 2022 legislative session.
A similar House bill (PCB PIE 22-03) also has emerged and is slated to be considered Thursday by the House Public Integrity & Elections Committee.
Republicans across the country have pursued additional voting restrictions since former GOP President Donald Trump lost his 2020 re-election bid, with many of the efforts targeting voting by mail. Tuesday’s 5-3 vote by the Senate committee came less than a year after Florida lawmakers passed an elections law that is being challenged in a federal trial that started Monday.
Sen. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, questioned the need for the new bill, saying lawmakers are “looking for problems that don’t exist.”
“We’re just making it harder and harder for people to vote by mail,” Berman said.
Bill sponsor Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, acknowledged that Florida had a successful 2020 election, with relatively few allegations of wrongdoing. But he said that shouldn’t stop lawmakers from taking additional steps to try to prevent such things as fraud.
“Who’s afraid of being too secure?” he asked.
In part, the bill would:
- Add requirements to the vote-by-mail process, including requiring voters to write in a designated space the last four digits of their driver’s license numbers, state identification-card numbers or Social Security numbers. Supervisors would compare the numbers to registration information. Also, people who vote by mail would have to use an additional envelope.
- Create the “Office of Election Crimes and Security” in the Department of State. The office, in part, could initiate inquiries and conduct preliminary investigations into allegations of election-law violations and forward information to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
- Require county elections supervisors to conduct reviews of voter-registration rolls at least once a year, which would be more frequent than the currently required every other year. The bill also would set additional requirements for supervisors about issues such as confirming addresses.
Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed creation of an office to investigate elections irregularities, though the Senate bill would not go as far as he sought. For example, DeSantis proposed including sworn law-enforcement officers in the office, something the Senate bill would not do.
Nevertheless, Democrats raised questions Tuesday about whether the office could be used for politically motivated investigations. Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said lawmakers should not be “pawns” in a political game as DeSantis seeks to appeal to conservatives who allege voting fraud.
But Karen Jaroch, a lobbyist for the conservative group Heritage Action for America, told the committee the new office is needed because few election crimes are prosecuted at the local level. She said it should be “easy to vote and hard to cheat.”