TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ goal of election security reforms is proceeding in the legislature with its first hearing in the House Appropriations Committee Monday. The bill already cleared two Senate committees.
House Bill 7061 and Senate Bill 524 are the Florida Legislature’s latest effort to use new legislation to institute stricter rules for Florida voters and elections. The policy directive was first announced by DeSantis in November, the day after 2021 state elections finished.
In the initial announcement, the governor said the legislation would limit ballot harvesting, ban rank-choice voting, and create a state law enforcement office to ensure election integrity.
The proposed bills would also reform the process for maintaining voter rolls, with a focus on confirming residential addresses of voters, change how voter signatures and canvassing processes are performed, and require the supervisors of elections to “keep all valid and invalid initiative petition signature forms” in a catalog for a year, to be published with “regular counts” while giving residents a way to copy and review those documents.
The biggest additions to Florida from the proposed legislation would be the creation of the Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Department of State. According to the bill, the office would have the goal of investigating allegations of election law violations or election irregularities in Florida.
The office would be based out of Tallahassee and hire “nonsworn investigators to conduct” its investigations, in addition to sworn specials officers, made special agents by the FDLE. The budget for the office and its “positions and resources” to perform those duties are subject to the legislative appropriations office, explicitly, according to the bill’s text.
As written, the investigative office would have a special officer in each operational region of the FDLE to investigation alleged election law violations. There are currently seven regional operations centers.
If the legislation passes, it would also require a yearly report on its investigations into alleged election violations. The reports would be due by Jan. 15 each year and would be submitted to the Governor, President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Included in the report would be details about “total number of complaints received and independent investigations initiated,” the number of cases referred to other agencies for more investigation or prosecution, and the total number sent to special officers according to state statutes.
Each alleged violation must be reported with the source of the allegation, the law allegedly violated, the irregularity reported, and the county where it supposedly happened. If it was referred to another agency or for prosecution, the report must also include a current status of the investigation, or resulting criminal case, according to the bill.
Costs of litigation, and expenses related to election administration, may not be paid for by private funds, according to the bill. Specifically, HB 7061 adds the provision that expenses for these purposes cannot be paid by private funds by any agency or state or local official.
Current Florida law already prevents private funds being used by supervisors of elections, and other state entities, from using nongovernmental funds or money from individuals, to pay for election registration programs. There are multiple fines and penalties already on the books for Florida election law.
Voter registration organizations already face minimum $50 fines for each application they submit to a supervisor later than 14 days after a resident fills the application out.
If an application is delivered late on purpose, fines are increased to $250 under current Florida law, with an additional $100 fine “for each application collected…before book closing for any given election for federal or state office” and received after deadline, and another $500 for each application received submitted after deadline “willfully.”
Fines already codified in state statutes also include a $500 fine per application for each application submitted to an elections office outside the county of residence of the voter, and $1,000 per application if it is submitted to the wrong county office on purpose. Under the current statutes, an aggregate fine maximum against a third-party voter registration organization is $1,000. The new legislation increases it to $50,000, if passed.
The bills also create penalties for third-party voter registration organizations who collect and alter registration applications of any voters without their knowledge or consent. If the bills pass, and are signed into law, a person collecting voter registration applications for a third-party and makes alterations would be fined $1,000 per altered application.
These alterations must be done with consent and knowledge of the voter, or they would lead to penalties. Changes could include things like updating an address, changing contact information or purposely altering someone’s registered party affiliation without their consent, to name a few examples.
The bills also change voter registration maintenance from two year processes to annual, and require election supervisors to conduct change-of-address audits in odd-numbered years, to identify changes of address for voters where mail is registered “return-if-undeliverable” or if the voter has not participated in an election in three years or more, without updating their registrations.
Address confirmation requests must be sent to the voter’s legal residential address, unless they are registered as temporarily living outside of the United States. If the request is returned as undeliverable, the proposed bill says any other notification must be sent to their listed mailing address on file, in addition to residential addresses. The registration lists must be updated within 90 days of a federal election, each year, according to the bill.
If there is no response from a voter within 30 days of attempts, election supervisors must send a final notice to all addresses on file. A lack of response following this series of attempts to confirm registration and address would have the voter removed from the registration, until such time as they restore their voter status.
Correcting registration records is not precluded by voters submitting information, according to the bill.
As proposed, the bill also clarifies that officials must provide information about those who are not U.S. citizens, and that a voter’s identification includes information about any potential financial obligations for felony convictions have been paid before voting is allowed.
The information on convicted felons must also include identifying information such as full name, last known address, date of birth, race, sex, Florida driver’s license number, social security number, financial obligations, county of conviction, and the statute violation along with date of conviction and case number.
In addition to registration checks, election law enforcement officers and a ban on ballot harvesting, the bills propose changes to petition signature-gathering for ballot initiatives, changes to the mail ballot system focused on adding identification numbers to vote-by-mail certificate envelopes, and requires the storage of all petition signature forms for one year following an election.
If either version of the bills pass, they would take effect upon becoming law, before the November 2022 general election. Both bills are not without their opponents. From gubernatorial candidates to state Democratic lawmakers, bill opponents argue the legislation doesn’t solve a problem that Florida has.
The continued political effort to update election laws in Florida follows legislation passed in 2021 to make elections more secure, even after the state itself acknowledged the 2020 election as the “best run” in state history. Still, Republican majorities in both chambers of the legislature make it likely that the bill will pass. As a policy goal of the governor, if the bills pass in the legislature, DeSantis is likely to sign them into law.