Walking the Election Fraud Beat

Like many election officials around the country, Wesley Wilcox, supervisor of elections for Marion County and president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections, has seen his office inundated with complaints since the November 2020 election.

“I’ve been doing this here in Marion County for over 20 years,” he told The Dispatch. “And this is the first instance of anything to this magnitude that we’ve ever seen.”

But lots turned out to be nothing: “Over the last 18 months, there have not been documented cases of alleged, any sort of fraud or anything else brought to me. There have been myths and rumors and other stuff. But actual hardline, we’ve got stuff—there really has not been anything out of the ordinary.”

The most significant voter fraud news came in December, when authorities arrested and charged three residents of The Villages, a sprawling retirement community in the central part of the state, with voter fraud. Officials say they cast more than one vote in the 2020 election. Two were registered Republicans, while one was unaffiliated with either party, according to The Herald Tribune. It’s unclear whether the voters knew each other or who they supported in the election.

Wilcox expressed pride in Florida’s system and its lack of serious fraud issues. “We were held up as a gold standard in the 2020 election cycle,” he said.

Despite that sentiment, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has called for the creation of a law enforcement unit with the sole purpose of hunting down voter fraud and other election-related crimes. Other states may follow his lead, though it’s unclear whether such proposals will find sponsors in statehouses and get the votes to become law in Florida, Georgia, and Arizona.

But experts question whether such extensive—and expensive—proposals are realistically tailored to address the few cases of fraud that exist, especially since these states already have infrastructure to investigate election complaints.

“The issue of voter and election fraud is often portrayed as something we can’t get a handle on. And that is completely false. Voter fraud is one of the easiest things to detect,” David Becker, a former federal prosecutor and now executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research, told The Dispatch. “One of the things that raises concerns for me about these police forces: They are not only unnecessary to taxpayer dollars, they seem to be messaging platforms that are politically motivated seeking to support the false narrative that the election was stolen.”

In his budget for fiscal year 2022-23, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis asked the State Legislature to designate $5.7 million for an Election Crimes and Security investigative unit. It would include 20 sworn police officers and 25 investigators and fall under the jurisdiction of Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who is governor-appointed. 

“We’ll have sworn officers as a part of this, we’ll have investigators, we’ll have the statewide prosecutors that’s able to bring the cases … what happens is, if someone is ballot harvesting, you report it to these people, and this is their sole job,” DeSantis told a supportive crowd when he first unveiled the proposal in November. 

The move came despite DeSantis’ initial praise for the way his state conducted the 2020 presidential election. The state went for President Donald Trump. “The way Florida did it, I think, inspires confidence. I think that’s how elections should be run,” the governor said hours after polls closed in 2020.

Wilcox said tips and allegations of election crimes currently go to the office of his state attorney, who oversees five counties, including Marion. Complaints about candidates go to the Florida Election Commission. Other allegations, such as complaints about forged signatures on petitions, go to the Department of State. From there, they’ll go to the attorney general’s office. If the AG decides it merits concern, the case will then go to the statewide prosecutor’s office. Wilcox’s office doesn’t have investigative authority, but it does help provide evidence.

“A consolidation of election issues or challenges or whatever you deem them is not a bad idea,” he said. But he couldn’t determine whether DeSantis’ proposal would help with that until a lawmaker actually moves to introduce a bill. The Florida legislature is currently in session until March 11.

It’s unclear how much headway the proposal will make in this year’s session, if any. Last year, DeSantis signed a bill that rolled back some voting measures accommodating COVID-19 health concerns. Among other restrictions, it banned ballot harvesting and prohibited unsolicited mass mailings of ballots.

Mark Ard, director of external affairs at the Florida Department of State, told The Dispatch that “by proposing the Office of Election Crimes and Security, Gov. DeSantis has recognized that the Florida Department of State has statutory responsibility to fulfill this important role, and must be funded and staffed commensurately in order to do so.” He said that creating the additional unit would allow them to tackle complaints earlier.

According to the Secretary of State’s website, the secretary of state’s office fielded 262 Election Fraud Complaint forms in 2020. It referred 75 to law enforcement or prosecutors, but it’s unclear what kinds of complaints were submitted or if any have resulted in conviction.

“We have isolated instances of voters who vote in two states or unlawfully vote someone else’s ballot, and it is important that when those types of crimes occur, they are identified and expeditiously prosecuted,” Ard said. “But those examples are only a small part of what we do, and what we must address to keep our elections process in Florida secure.”

Ard also listed other issues the new unit would police: complaints of forged signatures on petitions, election officials and staff receiving threats of violence, misdirected vote-by-mail ballots, and third-party voter registration organizations that have allegedly altered people’s political party affiliation without consent.

Wilcox noted that his office has also received lots of complaints of alleged petition fraud that have popped up over the last couple of months. “I’ve got at least 900 cases of that that we’ve turned over to the secretary of state’s office,” he said.

But those center on petitions to expand casino gambling in North Florida state, and Wilcox expects those complaints to drop dramatically soon.

Some critics have pointed out that additional law enforcement resources could go elsewhere, such as understaffed local police departments. 

“The good news is that the existing structures are more than adequate. They’re quite successful at pursuing voter fraud cases,” Becker said. He doesn’t see the need for such an outsized police force dedicated solely to this issue, especially in a state like Florida.

“It was an incredibly well-run election,” Becker said of the 2020 presidential contest in the Sunshine State. “There were no legitimate claims of voter suppression in Florida, no legitimate claims of any kind of widespread or significant voter fraud.”

Wilcox said he could potentially support a separate unit to deal with voter fraud if it were an appropriate size: “The size proposed, I don’t know if that’s appropriate. I know the secretary of state’s office is way understaffed … so having a separate agency this large in there may be a bit large for this type of stuff and people could be possibly better used on the other side of [Secretary Lee’s] agency.”

But the idea may be catching on elsewhere: Last week, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a Republican from Georgia who has his sights trained on the governor’s mansion, announced his plans for a similar police unit. His primary opponent is incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp.

Perdue’s suggestion of creating an “Election Law Enforcement Division,” the details of which were first reported by Fox News last week, is contingent on his political future: He must beat Kemp in the primary to see it fleshed out. He said the division would be nested within the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and would focus on election-related crimes. He didn’t delve into the details of how the police force would operate.

In a statement, he said the “purpose of this law enforcement unit is to give Georgians confidence that only legal votes will be counted, and that anyone who tries to interfere with our elections will be arrested and prosecuted.”

Kemp spokesman Cody Hall responded in a tweet that Perdue’s proposal gave credence to the fact that as governor, Kemp had “no legal authority in the oversight, administration, or investigation of elections under current state law and constitution.”

Perdue has at least one heavyweight on his side: Trump endorsed him the day after he announced his run. Kemp drew Trump’s ire after he certified the 2020 election results in Georgia. Perdue has also suggested that election results in the state should face an independent audit prior to certification.

Since losing an early 2021 Senate runoff to Democrat Jon Ossoff, Perdue has leaned into claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent. In December, he filed a lawsuit against election officials in Georgia’s Fulton County, arguing that the county officials there had “circumvented the majority vote of the people of the State of Georgia,” in the presidential election.

The Georgia secretary of state’s office currently employs two investigators focused on election crimes, but the office has over 20 investigators, mostly former police officers, who also can work on such issues. Prior to 2020, they primarily focused on investigating licensing violations, but the office has been inundated with allegations and tips about election-related issues since. If an election crime tip proves credible, investigators refer cases to the State Election Board, which has authority to fine minor violations up to $5,000. The board refers more serious cases to a district attorney or the state attorney general for prosecution.

In his budget for fiscal year 2022-2023, Kemp asked for just under $500,000 to add four positions to investigate election complaints within Georgia’s Bureau of Investigation.

In 2020, Georgia received over 250 election-related complaints, 130 of which were related to November 2020 elections according to the Secretary of State’s office. One case though, could include any related complaints (such as all the allegations of out-of-state voting).

Any changes to voting law in Georgia are bound to garner controversy, if last year is an indication: In April Kemp signed into law a controversial voting reform bill that tightened election law in some aspects, but in other areas expanded access to the polls for Georgians. Still, Democrats called it the “Jim Crow of the 21st century.” Democrats’ response to GOP-led changes in states has been to propose a sweeping elections and voting overhaul on a national level, but it recently failed on the Senate floor and appears to be dead in the water for now.

Another effort election crimes overhaul may come from the Grand Canyon State. Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers, a Republican, filed a bill to create a “bureau of elections” that would fall under the governor’s office to “investigate allegations of fraud in any state, county, or local government election.” It’s unclear whether the bill will go anywhere, though Republicans currently have slim majorities in both chambers. The state recently underwent an audit by the firm Cyber Ninjas, which came up empty in its effort to find voter fraud.

Marcus Milam, communications officer for Maricopa County Recorder, told The Dispatch that cases of potential voting fraud go to the Election Integrity Unit within the attorney general’s office. (See last week’s edition of The Sweep for an analysis about the police units.)

Some experts say the flurry of election reform laws is indicative of a deeper problem: growing mistrust in American elections on both sides of the aisle.

“Republicans who have fallen for Donald Trump’s lies about 2020 believe they are defending democracy,” Yuval Levin, an American Enterprise Institute senior fellow and National Affairs editor, told The Dispatch. “ This has been a problem in our politics for a generation now.”

He added: “Democrats said that after 2000 and 2004 and in the Trump years, Republicans said it in the Obama era and are saying it again now. … It is a deeper phenomenon and that means it will take Republican politicians openly telling their voters that the big lie is a big lie.”

But election experts emphasize that, despite the deepening distrust, American elections remain secure.

“I want to be clear: It’s not that voter fraud never exists,” Becker said. “It happens but happens at a very, very small scale.”

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