DeSantis wants felony penalties for ‘ballot harvesting’ and more hurdles for voters

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By
Michael Moline

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Reporter

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This story was originally published by the Florida Phoenix.


Gov. Ron DeSantis called Wednesday for new laws to make voting harder, including imposing felony penalties for “ballot harvesting,” creation of a special unit to investigate election fraud, and stricter deadlines for striking inactive voters off the rolls.


The day after the Democrats lost the Virginia governor’s race and threw New Jersey’s into an as-yet undecided contest, during a campaign-style speech before a raucous Palm Beach County crowd that on occasion drowned out his words with cheers and shouts, the governor cast his initiative as protective of “election integrity.”


“How ’bout Virginia?” he asked the whooping crowd.


“And New Jersey? And many other places,” he said. “But I can tell you this: You ain’t seen nothing yet. Just wait til you see what we do in Florida in 2022.”


DeSantis said he will propose the measures for the Florida Legislature’s regular session, which opens on Jan. 11. The governor also has called a special session, to convene on Nov. 15, seeking to countermand President Biden’s vaccine policies and toughen state laws purporting to give parents discretion over whether their children wear masks in school.


“We’ll have law enforcement officers as part of this; we’ll have investigators; we’ll have the statewide prosecutor to bring cases,” he said of the anti-fraud team.


Meanwhile, Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who administers elections, posted on Twitter Wednesday that she has created an “elections integrity” webpage.


“Florida’s election in 2020 was accurate, transparent, and conducted in compliance with Florida law.  Florida conducted both pre- and post-election audits, and we are confident in the security and integrity of our 2020 election results,” Lee wrote on the page.


“Gov. DeSantis and I have made elections integrity a defining priority and a cornerstone of this administration. At the Florida Department of State, we are committed to integrity, transparency, and to building voter confidence in our elections process by providing accurate information to the public.”


The push follows efforts by local party organizations to conduct an Arizona-style audit of the 2020 presidential election, which Trump won and which the governor earlier described as a national model.


DeSantis has resisted such calls, and the organization representing election supervisors has denounced such efforts to delegitimize elections, as the Orlando Sentinel reported.


However, Roger Stone, pardoned by former president Trump following his conviction of seven felonies related to Russian interference with the 2016 election, has threatened to run against DeSantis next year unless the governor seeks an audit, as The New York Times has reported.


Wesley Wilcox, of Marion County, president of the Florida Supervisors of Election organization, said in a telephone interview that he wasn’t familiar with DeSantis’s remarks that Florida has no problem with systematic voter fraud.


He was unaware of any irregularities aside from last year’s “ghost candidate” scandals in state legislative races, which benefited Republicans, as news organizations including WESH have reported.


County supervisors of elections aren’t equipped to investigate election fraud, DeSantis said.


But Wesley insisted his office is fully capable of investigating fraud in tandem with local prosecutors.


For example, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle is pressing criminal charges against former state Sen. Frank Artiles for allegedly recruiting a man with the same last name as then Sen. Jose Javier Rodríguez, a Democrat, to help Republican Ileana García by win a South Florida seat by 32 votes last year.


“If there’s something out there documented that you can give me concrete evidence, myself as well as my colleagues across the state, we’re going to investigate,” Wilcox said.


Ballot harvesting is when organizations including churches and civic groups collect mail-in ballots cast largely by older people and shut-ins unable to vote in person. Legislation DeSantis signed into law this year essentially limits the activity to family members.


The existing law provides misdemeanor penalties but now the governor says the Legislature didn’t go far enough.


“We’re going to make sure ballot harvesting is a third-degree felony,” he said to extended cheers and applause. The penalty would be up to five years in prison.


DeSantis also called for deadlines for local elections supervisors to purge their rolls of invalid voters. He provided no specifics. Under existing law, supervisors participate in the Electronic Registration Information Center – or ERIC — which uses voter registration data in member states, Department of Motor Vehicles, Social Security Administration, and Postal Service records to compare voter lists.


The law requires supervisors to attempt to notify voters who appear to have died, moved away, or been convicted of felonies disqualifying them from voting. Supervisors have to notify state officials of the results of these inquiries twice each year.


DeSantis called for additional restrictions on ballot drop boxes, used by election supervisors in 2020 to make voting easier during the COVID pandemic. The Legislature last year imposed $25,000 fines on supervisors who fail to monitor drop boxes at all times. Now DeSantis wants them removed from public access at 7 p.m. on election nights.


That’s already the law, Wesley said in a follow-up email. “ALL ballots must be in the supervisor’s office at that time, regardless of their post mark,” he wrote.


The governor also mentioned a step to “prohibit unsecure, haphazard drop box locations in Florida,” according a press release.


Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, issued a written statement reiterating that Florida’s elections already operate smoothly and with integrity.


“Why now waste taxpayer dollars another time around trying to fix something that was not broken in the first place?” she wondered.


Supervisors already are burdened with implementing last year’s restrictions, Scoon added.


“The new rules are cumbersome and unneeded and make their jobs and voting overall more difficult. Groups, like the League and others have said and will continue to say that adding hurdles, penalties, and unnecessary law enforcement presence in the voting process will likely have a disproportionately adverse impact on the young, the disabled, the elderly, and Black, and Brown communities.”


The governor’s press office hasn’t replied to a request for information about the people attending the event — which, although billed as a news conference, among whom reporters did not predominate. DeSantis, standing before a blank wall flanked only by the U.S. and state flags. took no questions following his remarks, which were drowned out on occasion by a heckler and also by others in the crowd who loudly tried to shout down the man.

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