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Secretary of State Cord Byrd on election integrity and how a new crimes office impacts 2022 voting

Office of Secretary Cord Byrd
Office of Secretary Cord Byrd
Office of Secretary Cord Byrd

Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Pete Antonacci as the new state elections cop. He will lead the state’s new office to investigate any election crimes and voter fraud.

Antonacci is the former Broward County supervisor of elections, Palm Beach County state attorney, and former general counsel to the governor Rick Scott.

You turn to WLRN for reporting you can trust and stories that move our South Florida community forward. Your support makes it possible. Please donate now. Thank you.

Secretary of State Cord Byrd explained how the new Office of Election Crimes and Security, created to investigate election fraud and other crimes, impacts upcoming elections. Despite a smooth 2020 elections process — a broad census across the political spectrum — Byrd said “additional security” was a priority of the administration.

“We have election laws on the books and nothing undermines any law more than a law that's not enforced,” Byrd told WLRN. “Elections are a complex mix of federal and state law, the thought of the legislature and the governor is to have a dedicated unit that investigates and where necessary, makes referrals to states attorneys or the statewide prosecutor so that voters can have confidence that the voting laws are being enforced.”

DeSantis won't say publicly whether he believes the 2020 election was stolen.

Many opponents — Democrats, for example — have said the Office of Election Crimes and Security is a solution in search of a problem, and that voter fraud is so rare that it doesn’t justify the kind of resources this office is receiving. Opponents cited the governor's admission that the state's 2020 election was secure. Byrd also believes the state’s 2020 election was secure.

And just to put it in perspective: The Florida Department of State said that it received 262 complaints of fraud in 2020, of which it referred 75 to prosecutors. That’s out of more than 11 million Floridians who voted in the 2020 election.

Byrd says there’s no direct influence on upcoming elections other than increased involvement from federal and local and state partners to ensure that the infrastructure is secure from cybersecurity threats. The state increased some of the penalties to felonies and the new elections office is keeping a close eye on things such as double votes, petition fraud, and registration fraud.

"And there are instances just from the 2020 election of double voting of people, people that are on the rolls that are dead, that cast a vote. Of felons voting," Byrd said. "And then the other issue we run into is voter registration and petition fraud. Just recently, two individuals in Duval County were arrested for forging signatures, thousands of signatures on petitions. So this is something that's real. It is something that happens. And, you know, we want to make sure that once again, that our laws are being enforced. So that's why it's necessary and important."

On Election Integrity and Power of Voters

There are several reasons for why opponents have questioned Byrd’s judgment on the matter of elections and the power of voters.

Byrd, an attorney and former Florida state representative, sided with DeSantis over disputes regarding the state’s congressional maps that favor Republicans, maps that significantly reduced the power of Black voters in the northern part of the state. And he supported many of DeSantis’ high-profile measures, such as HB1, the “anti-riots” bill currently blocked from enforcement by a panel of judges.

In regards to the integrity of Florida’s election system, the state gave county supervisors of elections more time to count vote-by-mail ballots so that vote counts could be released quickly before election day — unlike other states like Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan that saw long delays in the 2020 election.

And despite Florida’s smooth election process, Byrd also cited irregularities as a reason for the state’s new elections office, using the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision as example — that court’s conservative majority recently ruled to stop using dropboxes for absentee ballots. In Wisconsin, a voter can’t have someone else return their absentee ballot on their behalf. Republicans in Wisconsin have tried to limit voting access in their cities.

In the past, Byrd cited irregularities in the 2020 presidential election despite no evidence accepted by courts of what he calls irregularities big enough to sow doubt in the nation's judicial system and elections process. Byrd said he didn’t mind taking issue with the results of President’s Joe Biden’s election but that since Congress certified President Biden as the president, Byrd actually now accepts Joe Biden as the president.

He also said he will commit to certifying the election of a Democrat for governor if the Democrat receives more legal votes by the deadline to certify the election. And that he believes it’s important for a state elections official to recognize the rule of law and the role of the judicial system.

So, what are the details surrounding the new office?

How will this office work with law enforcement?

Byrd said if an election crime occurs within an individual county, the crime referral will be made to the local state attorney. If it’s a multi-county crime, a statewide prosecutor under the auspices of the attorney general could step in. Most of their referrals would come from the supervisors of election.

"It starts with our partnership with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. So the new law creates the Department of Election Crimes and Security. So we're the investigative arm under the Secretary of State," Byrd said. "And then we have our partners in FDLE that will help us. And then, where necessary, a sheriff could make a referral. Most of our referrals, quite frankly, come from the Supervisors of Election. But nothing would stop a private citizen from making an allegation or for us investigating information on our own."

Byrd said if crime referrals, such as a double voter referral, are not legitimate, then the office will discard them. He also responded to allegations from opponents calling this office a secret police force. He said it wasn’t — that it's a unit to investigate warranted allegations and throw out unwarranted ones.

"I use this example. You know, when someone robs a bank, we don't ask them what political party they're in," Byrd said. "If they broke the law to commit a crime, we prosecute them in my office. And I can I can assure your listeners that we're not going to look at, you know, partisan intent if someone breaks Florida's law that we're going where, you know, we're going to investigate that and where appropriate, make the referrals."

Wilkine Brutus is the Palm Beach County Reporter for WLRN. The award-winning journalist produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs. Contact Wilkine at wbrutus@wlrnnews.org
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