Bill that established elections crimes unit moves to Florida House floor

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A bill establishing an election crimes investigations unit, banning ranked-choice voting, and requesting a study to look into changes to vote-by-mail forms passed its final House committee Monday.

HB 7061, sponsored by Republican Rep. Daniel Perez, passed the House Appropriations Committee along party lines. The legislation, which emerged from the House Public Integrity and Elections Committee earlier this month, contains several of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “election integrity” priorities.

An amendment to the bill during the meeting made it almost identical to SB 524, which passed its final committee last Thursday. The amendment asks supervisors of elections to maintain voter roll lists annually instead of every two years, one of DeSantis’ requests.

It also removed a section requiring the last four digits of a voter’s Social Security number, driver’s license or photo ID on vote-by-mail ballots. The amendment also adds a fine to organizations if a person collecting voter applications on its behalf changes someone’s party affiliation without consent. The fine is $1,000 per altered application.

However, one difference between the House and Senate versions exists. The House version would erase from state law a provision prohibiting poll workers from asking voters to provide additional information or to recite their home address when presenting their ID.

Abdelilah Skhir, a voting rights policy strategist for the ACLU of Florida, said during public comment that the legislation was a solution in search of a problem. He said that people are already being caught for voter fraud under current laws and adding investigators in the executive branch without in-statute protections could lead to partisan issues in the department.

“Individuals who broke the law were caught and held accountable for their misdeed,” Skhir said. “We have real needs to address in Florida and this is not one of them.”

During Monday’s meeting, criticism from Democrats focused on forming the investigations unit and concerns that a part of the bill that makes ballot harvesting a third-degree felony could harm people who turn in ballots for family and friends without being aware of the law.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell said the punishment could be a cost not worth the offense to the taxpayers, as it costs $100,000 to imprison someone for five years, the maximum prison time under a third-degree felony.

“That’s not something to make light of,” Driskell said. “Is it really that we want to punish someone for five years for trying to help people vote? It’s problematic.”

Rep. Ben Diamond said the legislation is not necessary because DeSantis and election officials called the 2020 Florida election the gold standard.

“My concern, very candidly, is we are making this change not based on data, not based on information, but based on politics and to fuel political points. This is not a good place to be as a legislature,” Diamond said.

Perez said exceptions to the ballot harvesting law, like for family members, would limit how the punishment hike could harm good actors. 

He also said he had a list of convicted election fraud cases in the state that demonstrates there is a problem that adding the investigations unit would solve. When Driskell and other legislators asked him how many cases were on the list and what they involved, he declined to cite them or provide a total number, but offered to meet with them after the committee meeting.

Perez also pushed back against claims that the legislation would limit people’s right to vote.

“I am pretty certain there is not one person in this room or in this state that can say they wanted to vote, but the laws of this state did not allow (them) to do so,” Perez argued.

The legislation’s next stop is the House floor.

Tristan Wood graduated from the University of Florida in 2021 with a degree in Journalism. A South Florida native, he has a passion for political and accountability reporting. He previously reported for Fresh Take Florida, a news service that covers the Florida Legislature and state political stories operating out of UF’s College of Journalism and Communications. You can reach Tristan at Tristan.Daniel.Wood@gmail.com, or on Twitter @TristanDWood.

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