The Florida legislature on Wednesday approved the creation of a standalone election police force, rubber-stamping a similar proposal floated two months ago by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has pushed for the idea under the guise of "election integrity."
DeSantis had originally called for a budget of $6 million and a staff of 52 workers to establish a law enforcement body for the state's election administration, according to The Washington Post. Ultimately, Florida lawmakers allotted $2 million to the unit, calling it the Office of Election Crimes and Security.
"We're very excited and thank the legislature for delivering on Governor DeSantis' election security initiative. The legislature carried out our goal of making it easier to vote and harder to cheat," Taryn Fenske, a spokesperson for DeSantis, told Politico.
No other state has an election crimes unit, making the Office of Election Crimes and Security the first of its kind throughout the nation. The office will operate as part of the Department of State and will report directly to DeSantis.
On top of assembling an election police force, Wednesday's bill also outlines a number of election crimes that would fall under the office's purview.
Chief among them is "ballot harvesting," a practice in which third-party election officials or volunteers gather and submit ballots on behalf of voters who may not be able to do so themselves. While Florida's restrictive voting law last year made that practice a misdemeanor, Wednesday's measure would make it felony, punishable with a $50,000 maximum fine and up to and five years in prison.
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The bill, passed in a landslide by both the state House and Senate, has met with vigorous pushback from Democrats and voting rights advocates, who argue that it imposes an undue burden on Floridians to solve a problem that doesn't even exist.
Genesis Robinson, political director of Equal Ground, a voting rights advocacy group, said that Florida Republicans are "criminalizing certain acts around the elections process that most folks, particularly in the Black community, have long held as a way to assist those in need."
"To spend time in jail for simply trying to be a good neighbor, that's a problem," he told the Post.
Daniel Griffith, policy director at Secure Democracy USA, echoed similar concerns, telling CNN that the law could "deter people from participation in the democratic process."
"We don't know exactly what they are investigating," Griffith said. "Are they investigating election officials? Are they investigating voters?"
Florida state Rep. Joe Geller meanwhile suggested that the measure is completely unnecessary because "Election fraud is a unicorn."
"It's not real except in very sparse isolated incidents," Geller told Politico. "Should we be spending millions on a problem that doesn't exist?"
DeSantis has indicated that he will sign that measure, calling it a "gold standard" that should be used by other states.