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Statewide prosecutor bolstered in election cases

Election workers process mail ballots for the midterm elections in Philadelphia on Nov. 8, 2022.
Gerard Albert III
Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters and press inside a Broward Courtroom. DeSantis announced the arrests of 20 people for illegally voting while surrounded by Election Crimes and Security Office Director Peter Antonacci, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Secretary of State Cord Byrd, and Mark Glass, acting commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

TALLAHASSEE — Refueling a debate about alleged voter fraud, Florida lawmakers Friday gave final approval to a bill that will help the statewide prosecutor investigate potential election crimes.

The Republican-controlled House voted 77-33 along party lines to pass the measure (SB 4-B), which was approved Wednesday by the Senate. The bill now goes to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign it.

The bill seeks to ensure that the statewide prosecutor, who is part of the attorney general’s office, has wide jurisdiction in investigating allegations of election wrongdoing. But it led to a renewed debate about measures that Democrats contend are aimed at suppressing voting — and Republicans contend are designed to prevent fraud.

“We have scared thousands of people around the state from exercising their God-given right to have a voice in their government,” Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, said. “This is a fear tactic, and it’s voter suppression, plain and simple.”

But House sponsor Juan Alfonso Fernandez-Barquin, R-Miami-Dade County, said the bill “further protects the integrity of our most sacred right, the right to vote.”

“This ensures fraud will be investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law, the way it should,” Fernandez-Barquin said.

The bill, which was included in a special legislative session that ended Friday, came after a series of events that began in August with the high-profile arrests of 20 people on allegations that they cast ballots while ineligible to vote because of previous felony convictions.

DeSantis touted the arrests as part of an effort to crack down on fraud, an issue that has energized Republicans across the country since former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election to Democrat Joe Biden.

The statewide prosecutor charged the defendants, but judges dismissed three of the cases because they said the statewide prosecutor did not have jurisdiction. The judges ruled that the alleged crimes each occurred in only one judicial circuit, rather than multiple judicial circuits as required by a law about the statewide prosecutor’s jurisdiction.

The bill that passed Friday would allow the statewide prosecutor to investigate election cases that have “affected” two or more judicial circuits, an easier requirement to meet than the current standard.

For example, Senate sponsor Jonathan Martin, R-Fort Myers, said voters casting ballots in statewide races would affect two or more judicial circuits, allowing jurisdiction by the statewide prosecutor. Also, Fernandez-Barquin said transmitting voter applications to the state Division of Elections in Tallahassee from other parts of Florida would affect more than one judicial circuit.

During a debate Thursday, Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, questioned why local state attorneys should not be allowed to decide whether to prosecute alleged voting crimes.

“Why are we overreaching and removing those powers from them and putting it in this statewide unelected position?” Nixon asked.

“Representative, I would say that this is a matter of checks and balances and additional supervision when it comes to who can prosecute these crimes and to ensure that crimes are in fact prosecuted in case that there is a state attorney who decides not to prosecute,” Fernandez-Barquin replied.

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