Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law on Wednesday expanding statewide prosecutors’ jurisdiction and making it easier for his sham election crimes police force to prosecute voters. Democratic lawmakers and activists say it’ll also have a chilling effect on voting rights.
Earlier this month, Republicans in the state legislature introduced Senate Bill 4B (alongside an identical version in the state House) seeking to expand the jurisdictional reach of the Office of Statewide Prosecution (OSP). The bill authorizes the office to, among other things, “investigate and prosecute crimes involving voting in an election for a federal or state office,” and does away with a statutory requirement that the office only prosecute crimes in more than one county.
While state Sen. Jonathan Martin (R-Fort Myers), the Senate bill’s sponsor, argued that the expansion would encourage nonpartisan decision-making among local prosecutors, a staff analysis of the House version outright acknowledged the legislation was designed to help DeSantis’ task force actually prosecute those it arrests for voting illegally. The election crimes task force, coined the Office of Election Crimes and Security, was created in April 2022 to investigate non-existent widespread election fraud in Florida, but is widely seen as a political stunt created to help DeSantis score points with Trump supporters and election-deniers.
And critics argue that the bill will not only enable the OSP to go after trumped-up voter fraud cases but it’ll also have a chilling effect on voter turnout in the state.
Brad Ashwell, state director of All Voting Is Local Florida, pointed out that the bill gave OSP more power to prosecute cases brought by the OECS, which arrested 20 formerly incarcerated residents last August for allegedly voting illegally. Several of the cases were dismissed because statewide prosecutors didn’t have the authority to try them.
“This is basically the administration trying to work around the courts and using the legislature to do that,” Ashwell told TPM. “Just another way they’re changing the rules of the game.”
Pamela Burch Fort, a lobbyist with Common Cause, argues that the legislation would discourage former incarcerated citizens from voting, even though most of them had regained the right after voters passed Amendment 4, a ballot initiative restoring their suffrage.
“This sends a chilling effect throughout the state and many families and communities that supported returning citizens when they voted for this in 2018,” she told TPM. “So many chose not to go vote out of fear in the last election. It’s all a process of fear mongering.”
Democratic lawmakers have also spoken out against the bill. State Senator Geraldine Thompson, an Orange County Democrat, called out the arrests as a political stunt that was “splattered across front pages” during the debate over the bill earlier this month. “That’s the reason we are hearing this particular bill,” she said.
Rep. Yvonne Hinson, a Gainesville Democrat, came out against the House version during debate earlier this month.
“Voting rights in this state overall have taken a nosedive,” she told TPM. “We’re headed backwards instead of forward, limiting access instead of expanding access. It’s all to please this governor.”
She also accused DeSantis of using the legislative process to advance his own political ambitions.
“This is no different from anything else that doesn’t go his way,” she said. “It’s all about him having his own way.”